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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion / science


The Scientific Buddha

Donald S. Lopez, jr.

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To purchase The Scientific Buddha

Title: The Scientific Buddha
Author: Donald S. Lopez, jr.
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2012
Length: 135 pages
Availability: The Scientific Buddha - US
The Scientific Buddha - UK
The Scientific Buddha - Canada
The Scientific Buddha - India
  • His Short and Happy Life
  • Based on the 2008 Dwight H. Terry Lectures

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Our Assessment:

B : makes his case quite well

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Scientific Buddha is based on the 2008 Dwight H. Terry Lectures delivered by Lopez. The book is not, as he notes in his Preface, a comprehensive consideration of the history of claims of the "compatibility of Buddhism and science" (unlike his book, Buddhism and Science (2008), devoted to that subject). Rather, he is here concerned with what he sees as an artificial incarnation of Buddha that has recently (over the past century and a half or so) flourished -- the 'Scientific Buddha' of the title -- and what he considers the mistaken interpretations of such Buddhist concepts as 'karma' and meditation over this period.
       Lopez is suspicious of efforts to broaden Buddhism to even scientific-theory-of-everything proportions: as he notes, it's odd that even as science has changed -- from, say, a Newtonian worldview to a quantum mechanical one -- many insist on twisting Buddhism to explain whatever the prevailing theory of the day is. The breadth of Buddhism itself -- with such a: "wide range of doctrine and practice across historical time and geographical space" that it is difficult to speak with the necessary specificity of a single 'Buddhism' -- complicates matters, arguably allowing a mix-'n'-match approach to fit many scientific theories -- but Lopez argues that even at a fundamental level it would be better to separate the two: it is not so much that Buddhism and science are incompatible, but rather that they simply address entirely different things.
       The Buddhist doctrine of karma is one example he examines more closely. Apparently, it has frequently been seen: "as somehow analogous to the theory of evolution". In considering the Buddhist conception of karma (and the Darwinist theory of evolution) more closely, Lopez shows that there is obviously a fundamental misunderstanding here; as even the Dalai Lama acknowledges: "natural selection is at odds with the doctrine of karma".
       Lopez's broad, historical approach makes the impact of some of his points -- such as the fact that meditation was not widely practiced until relatively recently, and that it gained great popularity in a specific time and place (early twentieth-century Burma) -- particularly powerful: many 'scientific' points take on a whole different look when considered in the proper larger context.
       The nature of some of the concepts of Buddhism means it lends itself to a variety of (mis)interpretations (and misapplications). Lopez argues for abandoning the 'Scientific Buddha' that has been entirely to popular and influential for the past century and a half, and returning to a (or rather, the) more traditional Buddha. As he suggests:

     The Buddha does not need to be preserved in aspic, all of his wondrous aspects kept intact, frozen in time, the founder of a dead religion. At the same time, the Buddha does not need to be brought up to date, his teachings do not need to be reinterpreted into terms utterly foreign to what he taught, or what his tradition says he taught.
       The Scientific Buddha offers an interesting and quite detailed look at the rise of the 'Scientific Buddha', and where those embracing the concept have gone wrong, and Lopez makes his point well. It is a subject that lends itself to more in-depth discussion, but Lopez does convey and dissect many of the significant points and issues here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 September 2012

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The Scientific Buddha: Donald S. Lopez, jr.: Other books by Donald S. Lopez, jr. under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Donald S. Lopez, jr. teaches at the University of Michigan. He was born in 1952.

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© 2012 the complete review

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