An idea which attempts to gain credibility for itself by demonstrating its non-contradiction with an established school of thought has implicitly subordinated itself to the latter, and as such has already – wittingly or unwittingly – ceded its intellectual autonomy. In the context of debate, it has volunteered itself onto the defence, and placed the authority of judgement in the hands of the establishment. Under such circumstances, the best it can hope for is acceptance as an accessory of the establishment, and never as an idea which can influence the entire intellectual landscape.
When the Buddha preached the dharma, he did not do so by feebly attempting to demonstrate non-contradiction between his teachings and Brahmanism, which had been the established school of thought of his era. Instead, he altogether dismissed the establishment and boldly set his own teachings as the centre of a wholly alternative worldview, symbolized by the dharma wheel whose eight spokes (representing the Noble Eightfold Path) extend not from a pre-existing base, but from an autonomous centre formed solely by their intersection with one another. In this way, he not only refused to allow the merit of the dharma to be judged by the popular standards of his own time, but moreover demanded that the merit of other ideas be judged according to the standards set by the dharma. It was in this way that Buddhism was able to emerge as a new, powerful religion that went on to shape the culture of the Maurya Dynasty.
This heroic example set so excellently by the Buddha appears a far cry from the approach of many modern promoters of Buddhism. Observing their rhetoric, both in online media and in live presentations or discussions, I am struck by the frequency with which such promoters attempt to demonstrate that Buddhism is not inconsistent with the findings of modern science. They arm themselves with anecdotal equivalencies between Buddhist concepts and the latest empirical discoveries, and then proceed to convince their audiences that Buddhism is a scientific religion.
Let us examine this. When they promote Buddhism in this way, are they not implying that empirical discoveries set the standards of merit against which Buddhism must submit itself to measurement? When they proudly proclaim that Buddhism is a scientific religion, are they not in effect saying that Buddhism should only be taken seriously because it agrees with science, in other words reducing Buddhism to a vassal of the empiricism and materialism that happen to form the popular standard of our time? That is all that science is: the popular standard of the modern, secular era, which – just like Brahmanism before it, indeed like every establishment of its time – tends to claim intellectual monopoly. The English word science is derived from the Latin word scientia which means knowledge, as if it were the only means for anyone to know anything. The Sanskrit word Veda (which refers to the Brahmanist canon) also means knowledge. Do we see a pattern?
The Buddha did not try to show that Buddhism was a Vedic religion during his time, so why do modern promoters of Buddhism insist on trying to show that Buddhism is a scientific religion today?
Superficially, this might appear to be supportive of Buddhism, in that the effectiveness of Buddhist meditation techniques has been validated by MRI scanning. On a deeper level, however, this is nothing if not a strengthening of materialism. In the relation between Buddhism and materialism, it reinforces the dominant position of the latter, for it is invariably the giver of endorsement, not the receiver, who is implicitly recognized as the authority. Therefore, the more effort we invest into gaining endorsement from materialism, the more authority we relinquish to it, and the more we indenture Buddhism into servitude underneath it. Those who solicit endorsement in this way are behaving like the horse (whom I mentioned in a previous article) who tries ever harder to please his rider, or perhaps like a pet dog who wags his tail in order to receive a dog biscuit from his owner. At any rate, they are not behaving like the Buddha.
The Buddha made enemies, but even his enemies respected his teachings, precisely because of the dauntless courage with which he presented them. We can disagree with a school of thought but still respect it adversarially, provided it holds itself with fortitude and dignity. It is only when a school of thought attempts to uplift its status by associating itself with the establishment that we truly lose respect for it in our hearts.
Some may argue that, as long as this method is successful at promoting Buddhism to newcomers who might otherwise have no interest in studying Buddhism at all, why not use it? To this, I would reply that the method we use to promote an idea directly affects the demographic we draw towards it, and the demographic we draw affects the future development of the idea itself. As a simple example, if we promote a vegan diet by increasingly expounding its health benefits, we will end up drawing mostly health buffs instead of people motivated by compassion, with the eventual result that the compassionate element of veganism becomes increasingly marginalized over time. The same applies to Buddhism: if we promote it by increasingly expounding its empirical validation, we will end up drawing those whose first loyalty is to empiricism, not to the dharma. In which case, we should not be surprised if Buddhism is subsumed over time into a mere study field of empiricism. Indeed, the above link may be a hint that this process has already begun. Opportunistic tactics can bring success, but such success necessarily comes at a cost of internal injury.
Others may say that the Buddha inhabited an era where the average spiritual quality was much higher, in other words an era where heroism worked, whereas we inhabit an era in a much more advanced state of spiritual decay, and therefore an era in which heroism is impractical. This may well be true, but I would reply that an era in which heroism is most difficult is also the era in which it is most gravely needed. The greatest danger now facing Buddhism – which has at least 400 million adherents worldwide across almost every geographical region – is not that it might be forgotten in name, but that it might retain its name as a hollow shell while losing more and more of its original meaning to the creep of materialist, empiricist and other secular assumptions that characterize modernity. Only a massive outpouring of new spiritual inspiration from within the ranks of the Buddhist community can possibly turn this around, and throughout history it has always been heroes – never opportunists – who have inspired people with the force of their sincere personality. We do not need more modern promotion of Buddhism; we need more people willing to emulate the Buddha’s courage.