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Buddhism and Science

A Guide for the Perplexed

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to the present day, both Buddhists and admirers of Buddhism have proclaimed the compatibility of Buddhism and science. Their assertions have ranged from modest claims about the efficacy of meditation for mental health to grander declarations that the Buddha himself anticipated the theories of relativity, quantum physics and the big bang more than two millennia ago.

In Buddhism and Science, Donald S. Lopez Jr. is less interested in evaluating the accuracy of such claims than in exploring how and why these two seemingly disparate modes of understanding the inner and outer universe have been so persistently linked. Lopez opens with an account of the rise and fall of Mount Meru, the great peak that stands at the center of the flat earth of Buddhist cosmography—and which was interpreted anew once it proved incompatible with modern geography. From there, he analyzes the way in which Buddhist concepts of spiritual nobility were enlisted to support the notorious science of race in the nineteenth century. Bringing the story to the present, Lopez explores the Dalai Lama’s interest in scientific discoveries, as well as the implications of research on meditation for neuroscience.   
Lopez argues that by presenting an ancient Asian tradition as compatible with—and even anticipating—scientific discoveries, European enthusiasts and Asian elites have sidestepped the debates on the relevance of religion in the modern world that began in the nineteenth century and still flare today. As new discoveries continue to reshape our understanding of mind and matter, Buddhism and Science will be indispensable reading for those fascinated by religion, science, and their often vexed relation.


“For philosophers and cognitive scientists interested in psychological and ethical improvement Lopez’s new book is must reading. Mind scientists report that Buddhists are especially happy and serene. What does this mean? Are concepts such as ‘suffering,’ ‘happiness,’ and ‘equanimity’ understood the same in Buddhism and in science? Lopez is exactly the right historian to take us on this expert tour of the Buddhism and science dialogues as they have developed over the past two centuries in the West. At a time when glib enthusiasts for Buddhism and science claim vindication through the other, Lopez is the wise historically sensitive voice who asks us to reflect on which science, which Buddhism we are talking about.”

Owen Flanagan, Duke University

“This fascinating book provides a new way of understanding the various discussions of Buddhism and science that have taken place over the past 150 years. Lopez not only gives an account of the diverse claims made for the scientific credibility of Buddhism, but in the process offers deep insights into the complex relations among science, religion, and Western modernity. The science and religion field would be vastly enriched by more studies such as this.”

Peter Harrison, University of Oxford

"Lopez, whose book is more a history of the discourse between Buddhism and science than an examination of how the two inform each other, makes much of the Dalai Lama’s doctrinal flexibility. He suggests that this stems partly from the Tibetan leader’s desire to show that his religion is not the primitive superstition that many nineteenth-century European writers—and modern Chinese communists—have described. Perhaps so, but it must also derive from the Buddhist desire to know reality and not hide behind false assumptions about the world or our own nature."

Michael Bond | Nature

Table of Contents


1  First There Is a Mountain
2  Buddhism and the Science of Race
3  Two Tibetans
4  The Science of Buddhism
5  The Meaning of Meditation
Conclusion: Measuring the Aura


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