Buddhist Perspectives

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Buddhism arose around 500 b.c.e. as a practical response to the trouble and suffering that characterize the human condition. Uniquely among traditions concerned with those issues, Buddhism has never offered a final description of ultimate reality; it also has not proposed a universal fixed solution to the persistent and concrete problems of solely human trouble and suffering. Instead, Buddhism has developed a general yet systematic strategy for generating truly sustainable resolutions of the trouble and suffering that afflict all sentient beings in their specific contexts.

Significant common ground with the traditions of science and technology, particularly as they have developed in the West, is suggested by Buddhism's commitments to developing insight into patterns of causal relationship; challenging both common sense and other, more sophisticated forms of presupposition and authority; construing knowledge as a cumulative and consensual process; and devising concrete interventions to redirect patterns of human activity. However, Buddhism traditionally also has avoided any form of reductionism (materialist or otherwise), countering claims of both privileged subjectivity and absolute objectivity, inverting the presumed priority of facts over values, identifying the limits of (especially instrumental) rationality, and cultivating limitless capacities for emotionally inflected relational transformation. These commonalities and differences suggest that Buddhism is well positioned to complement but also critically evaluate science and technology as epistemic (knowledge-centered) and practical enterprises.

Historical Background

Originally promulgated in what is now northern India by Siddhartha Gautama (likely 563–483 b.c.e.), who became known as the Buddha, or "Enlightened One," the teachings of Buddhism quickly spread across the subcontinent and, over the next half millennium, throughout central, eastern, and southeastern Asia. Its emphasis on the need for context-specific responses and resolutions tailored to each new linguistic and cultural environment resulted in a distinctive pattern of accommodation and advocacy through which Buddhism steadily diversified, resulting over time in a complex "ecology of enlightenment."

Traditionally, Buddhist teachings and practices have been classified into three broad evolutionary streams: the Hinayana ("Small Vehicle") stream, which is prevalent today in southeastern Asia and more commonly is called the Theravada, or "way of the elders"; the Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") stream, which is most prevalent in eastern Asia; and the Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle") stream, which is associated primarily with Tibet and the societies and cultures of north-central Asia. None of these streams has a universally central text such as the Confucian Analects, the Christian Bible, or the Muslim Qur'an. There also are no globally fixed Buddhist institutions or centralized authorities. Although the analogy is not precise—especially because Buddhism is not a theistic tradition and does not advocate a pattern of belief in a supreme deity or deities—one can compare the breadth of Buddhist teachings and practices with that of the "Abrahamic" religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A coherent axis of critical insights and practical strategies has remained constant in the course of the historical development of Buddhism. This axis is expressed most succinctly in the so-called Four Noble Truths, the fourth of which has come to be known as the Eightfold Path: All this is suffering, troubled or troubling (Sanskrit: duhkha); suffering or trouble arises with particular patterns of conditions; suffering or trouble ceases with the dissolution or absence of those patterns; and those patterns of conditions can be dissolved through the cultivation of complete and appropriate understanding, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and attentive virtuosity. The insights and practices summarized in the Four Noble Truths traditionally have been referred to as the Middle Way, a brief examination of which can introduce Buddhism's distinctive stance with respect to science and technology.

THE MIDDLE WAY: THE ONTOLOGICAL PRIORITY OF AMBIGUITY. Buddhism originated at roughly the time when early Greek thinkers were developing the precursors to natural science and philosophy. As in Greece, the intellectual terrain in India in the first millennium b.c.e. was extremely fertile. If anything, the range of Indian beliefs and debate regarding the nature of ultimate reality, its relationship to the world of experience, and the meaning and purpose of the good life exceeded that which developed on the Peloponnesian peninsula and in Asia Minor.

Recognizing the interdependent origins of all things, the Buddha saw that each individual view in the spectrum of beliefs failed to resolve the trouble and suffering afflicting all sentient beings. Moreover, he realized that the entire spectrum—encompassing a range of metaphysical and ethical positions running from hard materialist reductionism and hedonism at one end to theistic monism and asceticism at the other—was similarly inadequate. The very conviction that some independent ground (matter or spirit, for example) or grounds (as in the case of metaphysical dualism) underlies all things was a primary cause of trouble and suffering. Equally conducive to suffering was the belief that individual things exist independently of one another. In actuality, the Buddha realized, nothing literally exists or "stands apart" from all other things. What is most basic is relationality.

Rather than being a compromise position or a synthesis of a variety of contrasting views, the Middle Way consisted of the process of critically countering all epistemic and practical stances and the "horizons" associated with them. It represents a return to that which is prior to the exclusion of the "middle" between "this" and "that," between what "is" and what "is-not." This process is modeled most concisely perhaps in the teaching of the three marks, an injunction to see all things as troubled or troubling, as impermanent, and as having no self or fixed essence and identity.

THE TEACHING OF THE THREE MARKS. The distinction between is and as—that is, between existential claims and strategic claims—is particularly important in the imperative to see all things as characterized by duhkha, or suffering and trouble. Whereas claiming that all things are troubled or suffering can be shown to be empirically false, seeing all things as troubled or suffering causes one to perceive how even the moments of greatest happiness come at a cost to someone or something. Far from being an exercise in pessimism, seeing all things as troubled or troubling helps a person understand his or her situation from another person's perspective. In effect, this entails opening up connections that allow people to realize an ethically shared presence. It means becoming aware that in some way all people make a difference to one another and have a responsibility for asking, "What kind of difference?"

Seeing all things as impermanent (Sanskrit: anitya) makes it impossible for people to assume or even hope that they can hold on to anything forever. This undercuts the kinds of expectation that lead to disappointment and suffering. It also makes it impossible to sustain the belief that people can do nothing to change their current circumstances. Seeing all things as ceaseless processes means seeing that no situation is truly intractable. Because every situation continuously evidences both energy and movement, debate cannot center on whether change is possible but only on what direction it should take and with what intensity.

Finally, seeing all things, including humans, as lacking any essential nature or identity renders impossible any claims that specific people are inherently good or bad. This dissolves the primary, prejudicial grounds for racial, ethnic, religious, and political conflict; it also undercuts any pretense that people simply are who they are. Seeing all things as anātman (Sanskrit)—literally, as having "no-self"—forfeits the basic conditions of maintaining chronic conflicts and opposition.

It also entails abandoning any justification for separating spirit and nature, the human and the animal, the individual and its environment, and consciousness and matter. The teaching of no-self thus came to be associated with the practice of seeing all things as empty (Sanskrit: śūnya), that is, as a function of horizonless relational patterning. For this reason, in later Buddhist usage emptiness (Sanskrit: śūnyatā)—the absence of any abiding essential nature—often has been equated with fullness. Instead of signifying its privation, the emptiness of a thing consists in its unique way of bringing into focus and contributing to all other things. An observable example of this is the way species contribute both directly and indirectly to one another's welfare in a sustainable ecosystem, with each species uniquely processing, circulating, and augmenting the resources of the system as a whole. As put by the second-century c.e. Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna (ca. 150–250 c.e.), understanding emptiness means appreciating the mutual relevance of all things.

Doing this, however, also entails realizing that what people refer to as separate, individual "things"—whether plants, animals, human beings, or histories—are nothing more than people's own editions of the total pattern of relationships that they focus and to which they contribute. For example, what people take a dog to be reflects their own values—the horizons of what they believe (or will allow) to be relevant—and this varies with whether a person is a laboratory worker, an only child living on a farm, or an elderly person confined to a small apartment. Because the particulars of people's experiences are conditioned by their values and intentions, people's day-to-day experiences cannot provide complete or objective pictures of their situation. In actuality, what people customarily assume to be independently existing objects are compounded or put together (Sanskrit: sa∣sk∣ta) out of habitual patterns of relationship.

Although many of these habits—and thus the nature of people's experience—reflect relatively individual values, intentions, likes, and dislikes, they also are conditioned by the values, goals, and desires embodied in families, communities, social and political institutions, and cultures. In Buddhist terms, the human world arises as an expression of people's karma and any practice directed at resolving the suffering or trouble that occurs in it must be karmically apt.

THE TEACHING OF KARMA. According to the Buddhist (as opposed to Hindu) teaching of karma, people should not see the topography of their life experiences as a simple and objective outcome of the intersection of their actions and the operation of universal moral law and/or divine will. It also should not be seen as a simple function of "natural law" and/or "chance." Instead, individual and communal experiences should be seen as reflecting ongoing and always situated patterns of consonance and dissonance among people's values and intentions. In light of the emptiness and impermanence of all things, karma can be understood as a function of sustained acts of disambiguation, a pattern of values-intentions-actions that constitutively orders the world and the individual's experienced place in it. Thus, not only do people have and share responsibility for the direction in which things are headed, the meaning of the human situation as a whole is continuously open to revision. The Buddhist cosmos may be described as irreducibly dramatic, a place in which all things are at once factually and meaningfully interdependent.

The Buddha most commonly discussed karma in terms of basic relational orientation: an orientation toward chronic and intense trouble and suffering (Sanskrit: samsara) and another toward liberation from those states (Sanskrit: nirvana). Orienting the individual and communal situation away from samsara and toward nirvana cannot be done through independent exertions of will aimed at bringing about the world people want. Understood karmically, controlling one's people's circumstances so that one experiences what one wants causes one to live increasingly in want, in circumstances increasingly in need of further control. Skillfully and sustainably directing one's situation away from trouble and suffering depends on seeing all things as thoroughly interdependent in a world in which differences truly make a difference and freedom is not a state of limitless choices or autonomy but a horizonless capacity for relating freely. Buddhist freedom does not pivot on matters of fact but on meaning; it is a matter not of controlling consequences—the victory of "free will" over "chance" and "determinism"—but of demonstrating appreciative and contributory virtuosity.

PRAJN˜Ā, SAMĀDHI, AND ŚĪLA: WISDOM, ATTENTIVE MASTERY, AND MORAL CLARITY. All Buddhist practice thus can be seen as directed toward healing the "wound of existence." Traditionally, this was understood as requiring three dimensions of sustained capacity building: prajn˜ā, samādhi, and śīla, that is, insight into the irreducible relationality of all things; attentive mastery, a function of meditative training that implies both perceptual poise and responsive flexibility; and moral clarity arising from attunement to the currents of value and meaning constitutive of any karmically inflected situation and a capacity for discerning how to orient them away from samsara and toward nirvana.

Thus, Buddhist practice is always both a critique of self and a critique of culture. Neither of these as aspects entails a general rejection of personal or social norms and institutions. However, both necessitate continuous and context-sensitive evaluation of those norms and institutions and the material processes through which they are realized. The relative balance of these dimensions of Buddhist practice of course have varied historically. In light of the nature of contemporary societies, they entail a readiness to engage science and technology critically.

Buddhism in Relation to Science and Technology

There have been robust traditions of science and technology in many Buddhist cultural spheres, particularly in India and China. In general, those traditions were not subject to direct critical attention and did not play significant roles in shaping the patterns of accommodation and advocacy that characterized Buddhism's adaptation to its changing cultural, social, and historical circumstances. Although there are passages in early canonical teachings that indirectly address the place of technology in governance and the furthering of social good (e.g., the Cakkavatti Sihanda Sutta), Buddhist critiques of scientific knowledge and considerations of the ethics of technology are only implied in broader critiques of religious, philosophical, and commonsense views. This was true throughout the first two millennia of Buddhist history even when Buddhist universities were the largest and most comprehensive in the world (roughly 600–900 c.e.), with faculties of as many as 2,000 teaching international student bodies in excess of 10,000.

A major shift occurred with the rapid expansion of European colonialism from the sixteenth through the late nineteenth centuries. Resting on interwoven scientific and technological advances, the colonial era brought Buddhism to the attention of the West and also brought modern Western traditions of science and technology to the attention of the Buddhist world.

Two primary currents of interaction emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century and have remained strong since that time. The first involves Buddhist accommodations of scientific and technical knowledge, initially in the colonial states of southern and southeastern Asia. Reflecting on the course of events on the Indian subcontinent, Buddhist leaders concluded that to the extent to which Buddhism was positioned as a religion based on revelatory insights and "unscientific" practices, it would undergo rapid and probably fatal erosion. Those leaders thus began to find textual evidence that would support the claim that Buddhism was in fact a rational and empirically grounded tradition that in many ways prefigured the role of science in the modern West. This "Protestant Buddhism" positioned itself as scientifically rational, logical, and devoid of the sorts of superstitions, myths, and mysticism that were a severe liability in Western eyes. The legacy of those "reform" movements can be seen today in the "globalization" of Tibetan Buddhism.

The second current of interaction developed largely as a result of the rise of science as the West's intellectual sovereign, the associated corrosive effects on European and American religious faith, and the breakdown of classical Newtonian physics. Asian traditions, Buddhism in particular, appeared as complementary systems that could provide scientific reality with a cogent ethical dimension, with scientists and philosophers such as Albert Einstein (1879–1955), Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), Betrand Russell (1872–1970), and Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967) hailing Buddhism as the religion of the future and the appropriate partner of science.

In the final third of the twentieth century, as Western knowledge about Buddhism increased, there came to light—especially in cosmology, physics, biology, ecology, and the computational sciences and neuroscience—patterns of uncanny resonance with Buddhist teachings that caused many people to conclude that they demonstrated the prescient, "postmodern" nature of Buddhism and its "anticipation" of, as well as potential for contributing to, contemporary science. More cautious commentators have seen the encounter between Buddhism and contemporary science—particularly in psychology, medicine, the biology of communication and perception, and behavioral science—as extremely fertile and mutually beneficial, with each tradition being assisted in its pursuit of truth.

Some Buddhists question the logic and wisdom of the marriage of Buddhist and scientific approaches to truth. It has been pointed out, for example, that legitimizing Buddhist teachings on the basis of their anticipation of current scientific truths is counterproductive. In light of the fact that the history of scientific change can be described as a "punctuated" evolution of essentially broad and incompatible research paradigms, many contemporary scientific truths will have no place in the science of the next decade, much less in that of the next century. Identifying Buddhism with current scientific paradigms runs the risk of discrediting Buddhism as they are replaced.

Moreover, it has been argued that although science often has been characterized as explicitly eschewing questions of meaning and claims neutrality with respect to the uses of scientific knowledge, Buddhism is centrally concerned with fostering directed revisions of the interdependence of all beings and stresses the union of knowledge and compassionate engagement.

Prospects for Critical Interaction

This suggests an opportunity for a "third stream" that would restore and enhance Buddhism's traditional role of examining patterns of belief and conduct and disclosing how they are limited and/or counterproductive in terms of understanding and resolving trouble and suffering.

Until recently most Buddhist work along these lines focused on the roles of science and technology in industrial and postindustrial patterns of economic development that have induced a drift toward materialism, consumerism, and fractious individualism. It has been noted that science and technology have played into global historical processes through which diverse patterns of sustainable interdependence have been replaced with patterns of simple coexistence. This systematic translation of diversity into mere variety has been criticized as resulting in a decrease of responsive and contributory capacity that is particularly apparent at the community level, with entire villages having been rendered unsustainable through incorporation into the global market economy. Here primary ethical attention has been given to the uses of science and technology to further elite, corporate, and national interests over and often against those of particular populations and the natural environment.

CHALLENGING THE VALUE-NEUTRAL STATUS OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. Some Buddhist critics have begun to question whether the moral valence of science and technology can be restricted to the way in which they are used. When considered in the context of interdependence and karma, it is apparent that Western-style development both drives and is driven by scientific and technological activity and that this symbiotic relationship is not accidental. In actuality it reveals deeply and continuously shared values. Because Buddhist ethics is concerned foremost with how both intentions and values shape human circumstances and experience, this recognition entails admitting that science and technology have a moral influence apart from any particular uses to which they are put.

At least since the time of Galileo (1564–1642), Western (and now global) science and technology have coevolved, embodying a constellation of values that include precision, predictability, objectivity, universality, power, and independence, all of which can be said to depend on the values of control and autonomy. These core values have proved to be highly compatible with short-term positive consequences in responding to trouble or suffering. Promoting these values means promoting the freedom to experience what people want in circumstances they prefer. From within a linear causal framework there is little reason to expect that the same situation will not hold in the long term.

However, in terms of the recursive processes of karmically ordered causation and change, control and autonomy—when expressed with sufficient commitment and/or on a sufficient scale—generate ironic effects and intensifying cycles of perceived trouble or suffering. For instance, a sustained commitment to control leads to increasing capacities for control but also creates circumstances that are both open to and in need of control. Because control always is exerted over and against another person or situation and cannot truly be shared, its widening instantiation engenders increasingly steep slopes of advantage/disadvantage, with a prime example being the income and wealth disparities endemic to technology-permeated global markets.

DISPLACING THE INDIVIDUAL AS THE UNIT OF ANALYSIS IN EVALUATING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. Although autonomy or the freedom to choose or control the nature of one's experienced circumstances may appear to be a simple ethical good, this is true only insofar as individual needs, desires, and values are taken as an evaluative basis or unit of analysis. In the absence of universal agreement about the desired nature of shared circumstances and the meaning of the good or the effective isolation of disagreeing parties, multiple exercises of autonomy within a population necessarily result in conflict.

The dominant Western ethical responses to this dilemma—utilitarianism and communitarianism—have not challenged the assumption that individually existing beings are the basic unit of both ethical analysis and communities. Those schools of thought thus have remained compatible with unabated commitments by both individuals and communities to technological development biased by an orientation toward control and autonomy. By contrast, the ethics associated with the Buddhist teachings of emptiness, interdependence, and karma require that qualities of relationship be taken as the basic unit of consideration. Generally stated, granted that the individual, independently existing, and rightfully autonomous self is a pernicious fiction, using the individual as the unit of analysis in evaluating science and technology can only lead to ironic consequences.

From this perspective it has been argued that control- and autonomy-biased technological development leads to mediating institutions, such as global commodity markets and mass media, that allow meaningful differences to be nullified while distracting attention from immediate personal, communal, and environmental relationships. This brings about a systematic erosion of diversity and situational capacities for mutual contributions to shared welfare. Thus, whereas control- and autonomy-biased technologies are conducive to ever-widening freedom of choice, they are correlated with an increasingly compromised capacity for relating freely and thus with ever more intense and chronic patterns of ignorance, trouble, and suffering.

In more general terms Buddhist ethics cautions against blurring the distinction between tools and technologies. Tools should be evaluated in terms of their task-specific utility for individual users (persons, corporations, or nation-states) and should permit the exercise of "exit rights," that is, choosing not to use them. Technologies, however, never are used in a literal sense. Instead, they consist of broad patterns of conduct that embody systems of strategic values and encompass activities that range from resource mining and tool manufacturing to marketing and the innovation of new cultural practices. Although one may choose not to use the tools associated with a particular technology, the world in which one lives continues to be shaped by that technology. With respect to technologies, there are no real exit rights.

From a Buddhist perspective technologies and the sciences with which they symbiotically develop systematize the way people conceive and promote their ends, conditioning the meaning of things, and thus can be evaluated only in terms of the ways in which their core values affect the quality of people's conduct and relationships. In Buddhist terms this entails critically assessing how and to what extent these values are consonant with the core Buddhist practices of cultivating wisdom, attentive virtuosity, and moral clarity for the purpose of realizing liberating patterns of interdependence.

It generally is agreed among Buddhists that scientific advances in people's understanding of factual processes—for example, the dynamics of climate change—should inform efforts to resolve current and future trouble and suffering sustainably. It also is agreed that scientific and technological research should be undertaken in ways that contribute not only to human welfare but to the welfare of all sentient beings. In combination, these commitments make imperative a deepening of the historically arranged "marriage" of Buddhism, science, and technology and promise an increasingly skillful furthering of the Middle Way.


SEE ALSO Bhutan;Chinese Perspectives;Hindu Perspectives;Indian Perspectives;Japanese Perspectives;Virtue Ethics.


Anonymous. (1995). Cakkavatti Sihanda Sutta, trans. Maurice Walsh. In The Long Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications. Authors are ancient and unnamed. This short text is a provocative commentary on the forces leading to social collapse and the importance of values in framing adequate responses to those forces.

Goleman, Daniel. (2003). Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell. This is a fine introduction to some of the work being done at the interface between Western psychology and psychotherapy and traditional Buddhist psychology and self-cultivation.

Gombrich, Richard. (1995). Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge. This short volume includes a succinct and careful introduction to the teachings and history of early Buddhism and its historical development into the Theravada tradition, one of the three major divisions of contemporary Buddhist thought and practice.

Hershock, Peter D. (1999). Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age. Albany: State University of New York Press. This book examines the karmic implications of the core values embodied by the predominant technological lineage, considering its historical, social, political, and economic precedents, with particular emphasis on its colonial legacy and effects on consciousness and community.

Jones, Ken. (1993). Beyond Optimism: A Buddhist Political Ecology. Oxford: John Carpenter. This monograph provides a sustained account of the implications of using Buddhist resources to understand and reframe contemporary political, economic, and environmental institutions.

Lopez, Donald, Jr. (2002). A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West. Boston: Beacon Press. This is a collection of historical essays and articles by a wide range of seminal figures in the meeting of Buddhism and the contemporary West, drawn from throughout the twentieth century.

Loy, David. (2002). A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. Albany: State University of New York Press. A methodical reading of historical, scientific, political, and cultural changes in the history of the European and American West through the conceptual lens of early Buddhist thought.

Payutto, Bhikkhu P. A. (1993).Towards Sustainable Science: A Buddhist Look at Trends in Scientific Development, trans.
B. G. Evans. Bangkok, Thailand: Buddhadhamma Foundation. This is an excellent introduction to contemporary Thai Buddhist critical encounters with Western science, written by one of the leading exponents of Buddhist engagement with contemporary issues.

Varela, Francisco J.; Evan Thompson; and Eleanor Rosch. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Deeply informed by Buddhist teachings and practices, this is a masterly scientific assessment of the biology of consciousness, thought, and behavior by leading scientific researchers in cognitive science.

Waldron, William S. (2000). "Beyond Nature/Nurture: Buddhism and Biology on Interdependence." Contemporary Buddhism 1(2): 199–226. A concise look at issues surrounding nature and nurture in the development of living systems through a close examination of the implications of Buddhist readings of interdependence.

Wallace, B. Alan. (2003). Buddhism and Science. New York: Columbia University Press. A fine collection of papers and essays that range across the sciences, providing an excellent introduction to "second stream" encounters of Buddhism (especially Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism) and contemporary science.

Watts, Jonathan, and David Loy, eds. (2002). Spiritual Responses to Technology. Special issue of ReVision Journal 24(4). This is a good introduction to contemporary Buddhist thought on technology and its personal, social, and cultural implications.

Williams, Paul. (1989). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. New York: Routledge. This is a very good introduction to the history and thought of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism.

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