I have the sneaking suspicion that Westerners who want to share their love of science with Tibetan monks (this is happening at Emory University) have found a clever way to attack Buddhism without overtly attacking its principles. By this I mean these Westerners are selling Scientism to Tibetan monks which is really selling a species of materialism that is inimical to the overall teachings of the Buddha. First, let’s look at the definition of “Scientism” which comes from the Oxford English Dictionary.
“A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour and the social sciences.”
What strikes me about this definition is the expression “physical science” which discloses a particular kind of science which is selling materialism. In is not science, per se, which the O.E.D. defines this way:
“The state or fact of knowing; knowledge or cognizance of something specified or implied; also, with wider reference, knowledge (more or less extensive) as a personal attribute.”
The object of any physical science must exist materially in order to be known. This is to say, a physical science’s object must have location and shape in order for it to be known. This is different than living systems, or the same, having life, which falls into the spiritual.
From the canon, we learn that the Buddha shows no positive interest in what exists materially since it is finite and ultimately, empty and illusory. What concerns the Buddha is the substance or essential nature of life, itself, which is dynamic and without location (it has other names in Buddhism such as One Mind, Buddha-nature, Suchness, etc.). In addition, he is concerned with those who have life, that is, sattvas, who wrongly cling to material structures in the belief that such can be a refuge from suffering.
One would be accurate to say that the Buddha, if he were alive today, would not be a fan of Scientism, which indirectly champions materialism. Teaching science in the form of Scientism to Tibetan monks is the thin end of the materialist wedge. Again, I stress the Buddha did not teach any form of materialism. Noteworthy, the Buddha declares in the Lankavatara Sutra:
“Analysed down to atoms, there is indeed no form to be discriminated as such; what can be established is the [truth of] Mind-only, which is not believed by those who cherish erroneous views” (trans. D.T. Suzuki).
If this is unsatisfying to the modern ear then this quote from Max Planck, the great pioneer of quantum physics, might help.
“There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter (Dieser Geist ist der Urgrund aller Materie).”