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Barbara O'Brien

How Buddhism Embraced Science

By October 10, 2013

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Blogger Fuketsu at Taste of Chicago Buddhism writes that last month was the 120th anniversary of the World's Parliament of Religions. The parliament, held in Chicago in 1893, was intended to create a worldwide dialogue among religious traditions. And to a large extent, it succeeded.

The parliament also was a significant event in western Buddhism. Two Buddhists addressed the assembly in person, and another -- a Pure Land scholar -- sent a paper read in his absence. This was, arguably, the first substantive introduction of Buddhism to cultural westerners, and it created impressions that persist in the West to this day.  This includes the perception that Buddhism is a science-friendly spiritual tradition, an appropriate topic given our recent look at the Higgs Bosun and Field.

Among the attendees was Soyen Shaku, a Japaese Rinzai Zen abbot who was the first Zen master to teach in the United States. His book Zen for Americans, first published in 1906, is still in print.

Soyen Shaku's translator was a young student named D.T. Suzuki, whose books and translations would someday pique the interest of Alan Watts (who wrote many popular books about Zen) and Jack Kerouac, among others. Thus Zen came to the West.

Another significant Buddhist at the parliament was Anagarika Dharmapala. Dharmapala was a Theravadin layperson and scholar who, for a time, was an associate of Henry Steel Olcott. Dharmapala also played an important role in the 19th century revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. And he remains hugely influential in how Buddhism is perceived in the West, even to those who never heard of him.

At the time of the parliament, Dharmapala was 29 years old. Press reports described his all-white robes, his black curly hair, and his gentle, refined face. His pleasant appearance and excellent English gained him considerable attention in U.S. newspapers.

Dharmapala made more than one speech at the parliament, and in his talks he stressed the harmony between Buddhism and science. Christianity at the time was reeling from the challenge of Darwin's Origin of Species, and psychology was just emerging as a new branch of science. Dharmapala discussed both, skillfully arguing that the Buddha had taught things science was just beginning to discover.

Although the Buddhism and science connection is not at all unreasonable, Dharmapala appears to have been one of the first to make it. This theme resonated well with progressive westerners of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, earning respect in the West for Buddhism as a tradition worthy of study and practice.

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