Monday, February 16, 2009

Donald S. Lopez Jr.'s "Buddhism and Science"

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Prisoners of Shangri-La, The Madman’s Middle Way, and Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed, and reported the following:
Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed is a kind of cultural history of the claim that among the world’s religions, it is Buddhism that is most compatible with modern science. It is a claim that has been made with remarkable consistency for 150 years, despite significant changes in what is meant by “Buddhism,” and what is meant by “Science,” during that period. For a variety of interesting historical reasons, Buddhism has come to be perceived in the West as the most progressive of the great religions—nonviolent, egalitarian, proto-feminist. These apparent qualities, when added to the compatibility with modern science, have suggested to many that the enlightenment of the Buddha somehow anticipated the European Enlightenment. But this view of Buddhism, and of its the relation to Science, is not entirely benign. Page 99 of the book occurs in the middle of a discussion of Buddhism’s unfortunate implication in one of the most potent sciences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the science of race.

The Buddha was renowned for taking terms that confirmed some kind of social status, such as brahman, and redefining it in religious terms, making it a quality not present from birth but attained through meditation practice. The most famous of these terms was the Sanskrit term aryan, which means “superior” or “noble.” For the Buddha, such nobility was not inherited but acquired. In the famous Buddhist doctrine of “the four noble truths,” the term rendered as “noble” is aryan in Sanskrit; the phrase might be more accurately rendered, “the four truths for the spiritually noble.”

In the nineteenth century, European philologists used the term Aryan to name a language family (also called Indo-European) that included Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German, French, and English. Verb roots would eventually become bloodlines, and Aryan became a race. But rather than insisting on the Buddha’s spiritual sense of the term, some Buddhist leaders adopted the racial meaning in their battles against Christian missionaries. One of these leaders was the Buddhist activist and Sri Lankan patriot Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933) who proclaimed the superiority of the religion of the Aryan Buddha over the primitive religion of the Semite Jesus, someone he reviled as “half Jew half Hittite.” This particular moment in the history of “Buddhism and Science” has been largely forgotten.

Excerpt from page 99:

Aryans who lived in the territory known as Bharatvarsha. Those who did not conform to the sacred laws were treated as Mlechhas.

Buddhism is a spiritualized Aryanism. The ethics of the Bible are opposed to the sublime principles of the Aryan Doctrine promulgated by the Aryan Teacher. We condemn Christianity as a system utterly unsuited to the gentle spirit of the Aryan race.

Dharmapāla here alludes to the two apparent meanings of Aryan. The British are not Aryan from the Hindu perspective because, regardless of their colonial occupation of India, they are not native to the soil of the Bharatavarsa, the ancient Sanskrit name for India. Furthermore, the British do not follow the ancient law codes of India. They are thus mleccha, barbarians. They are also not Aryan in the Buddhist sense because their religion is contrary to the ethical and thus ennobling teachings of the Buddha.

Dharmapāla appears to confuse his metaphors of the material and spiritual when he refers to “the gentle spirit of the Aryan race.” Or perhaps not. The most eloquent apostle of Buddhism of his age (or at least the most eloquent English-speaking apostle), Dharmapāla was concerned to demonstrate that Buddhism was a world religion, equal, indeed superior, to all others. The Aryan, literally “superior” nature of Buddhism could not then be simply a matter of language or bloodline. It had instead to be a spirit in which all Buddhists of Asia partook. “The Bhikkhus wearing the yellow robe of purity and love went to distant lands to spread the ethics of Aryan culture. They Aryanized the unaryan races.” Buddhism may indeed be found in its purest form among Aryan peoples of Sri Lanka and in the Aryan language of Pali. But Buddhism, for Dharmapāla, also had to be universal, and hence “a spiritualized Aryanism.” It had long been a tenet of the Theravāda traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia that so much time had passed since the passing of the Buddha that it was no longer possible to become an arhat, the ultimate āryan, who would enter nirvāṇa at death. The āryan, then, from the perspective of Buddhist doctrine, was the rarest of saints. Dharmapāla sought to restore the status of the āryan and expand it to encompass all Buddhists, a Buddhist nation unbounded by national borders, superior to those of the other great religions.

He thus did not hesitate to contrast Buddhism with the two other “universal religions” in the bald language of race; Christianity and Islam
Read Lopez's brief online feature, "Six Episodes from Buddhism and Science."

Learn more about Donald Lopez's teaching, research, and publications at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue