The first half of my book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized is devoted to the question of whether Buddhism is science friendly. The current Dalai Lama is personally very interested in science. He says that the belief in rebirth would have to go if science proved it impossible. The trouble is however, the standard of proof and disproof he recommends makes it impossible to prove or disprove the existence of anything. All the empirical evidence in the world can’t disprove the claim that I am a reincarnation and that I will have a rebirth nor can it prove that you are reading these words. There is truth and there is proof. Only mathematics trades in proof and disproof. Proof to one side, the 14th Dalai Lama is very interested in and enthusiastic about establishing neuroscientifically that Buddhist practices, and in particular meditation, can make one happy. I examine the question of whether happiness is something in the head that can be assessed by MRI. Before that though, I need to address the question of whether Buddhism promises happiness. If so, what kind? My answer to this is that there is no good evidence that Buddhists are happier than anyone else. The second half of the book takes up the question of what Buddhism would look like if one subtracted the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth. Can there be such a thing this is “Buddhism Naturalized”? My answer to this is that Buddhism can be naturalized, and that what is left is a deep, credible philosophy for our time.
Whether Buddhism contains a philosophy that really could be attractive to 21st century secular humanists means that it would require at a minimum, that Buddhist theory was consistent with science and thus broadly naturalistic, and so beliefs in karma, rebirth and nirvana would have to go. Can there be Buddhism without these beliefs?
There can be meaningful existence without those beliefs, but I, for one, would not want to wade into the tar pit of argumentation over who rightly gets to claim the Buddhist label for themselves, any more than I wanted to over what constitutes zazen. I agree that the thing he’s referring to, the crucible of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics he names “Buddhism naturalized” is a fine guide to living and one that deserves to have attention called to it, but I’m not the least bit interested in the bitter fights over copyright and branding that are sure to follow. In the tug of war over language, I offer no resistance. You can have whatever words you want. I’ll stick with the experience, which I don’t really need to talk about anyway.