BY ADAM FRANK
When discussions about science and religion turn into debates about science versus religion, Buddhism mostly gets a pass.
Thanks to the work of the Dalai Lama and others, Buddhism can seem far friendlier to modern, scientifically minded sensibilities than the Abrahamic religions. This alignment with science is strengthened by the widespread adoption of mindfulness techniques — often derived from Buddhist and other contemplative practices — in domains like medicine and psychology.
So with its supposed empirical emphasis on internal investigation, one might wonder if Buddhism is really a religion at all or, at least, in same the sense as Western monotheistic traditions. Maybe it’s better described as a kind of “science of happiness?”
Robert Sharf is a scholar of Buddhist studies at UC Berkeley and he has, apparently, heard this kind of question before. I was recently introduced to Sharf’s insightful writings via discussions about Buddhism and cognitive science with philosopher Evan Thompson, who has been doing his own work in these domains. For Sharf, the easy identification of Buddhism as a kind of inward-directed science of the mind represents a particular reading of its long and diverse traditions. Most importantly, what we get in the West is, for Sharf, a kind of “Buddhist Modernism.” In particular, the affinity Buddhism is supposed to have with science is, for Sharf, a very specific consequence of Buddhism’s historical encounter with the West — and to miss that history would be to miss the richer veins of meaning in Buddhism as a religion.