Remembering the Old Buddha, the Buddha Who Entered Our World To Destroy It

Jiryu Mark has a nice new post, American Buddhist Apocrypha, over at the No Zen in the West blog where they’re getting really educated these days. A backwoods, unlearned guy like me had to look up “apocrypha” – “hidden,” “esoteric,” “spurious,” “of questionable authenticity.”

I think it’s a word that’ll come in handy in wild fox country, so thanks to Jiryu, one of the finest of the California Zen ilk.

“I think we owe it to ourselves,” says Jiryu, “and to each other to be as transparent as we can about what we’re inheriting and what we’re making up.  To do so is to make this whole transition of Buddhism more conscious, more clear:  ‘Here’s what we’re taking; here’s what we’re leaving.’”

Along with what we’re inheriting, leaving out, and making up, I’d add that there’s also what we’re re-spinning.

And that’s just what I wanted to blow some gas about here, having just finished Donald Lopez’s The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life.

Lopez’s book is a provocative combination of scholarship and passion – just what the doctor ordered -  deconstructing what has become commonly understood about the old buddhadharma these weird days.

Lopez traces the origins of a new Buddha, the Scientific Buddha, from the racist and ignorant speculations of the earliest travelers from Europe to Asia who saw all the various Buddha images as a wide variety of idols, not realizing for hundreds of years that they were different depictions of the same guy. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that somebody bothered to study the texts.

The Scientific Buddha that most people nowadays confuse with the old Buddha, according to Lopez, was born in the 19th century, in an effort to find a religion that was in harmony with “science. ” But as Lopez points out,

“If Buddhism was compatible with the science of the nineteenth century [mostly phrenology and astrology], how can it also be compatible with the science of the twenty-first? …How can the same timeless truths be constantly reflected in discoveries that have changed, and continue to change, so drastically over time? …It is clear that the Buddhism that is compatible with science must jettison much of what Buddhism has been, and is, in order to claim that compatibility.”

I suppose when impermanence and emptiness are the heart of the matter, one could argue that Buddhism could morph to just about anything (like this incredibly trite presentation of Zen by Jeff Bridges on the Daily Show – I love ‘em both but this is really a disservice).

Lopez’s penetrating scholarly gaze is directed at the common assumption in dharma circles that Darwinian evolution and Buddha’s karma have a lot in common, of particular interest for wild fox zennists, I hope. For starters, according to Lopez, evolution and karma have purposes that are exactly opposite – evolution being about survival of the fittest and karma being about extinction of all species.

“Thus, far from teaching a dharma compatible with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it is perhaps more accurate to regard the Buddha as a counter-evolutionary, actively seeking the extinction of the human race, and indeed of all species, through the eradication of the selfish gene.”

And, “…My suggestion is that this incompatibility carries with it a particular power. My suggestion is that we allow the buddha to remain beyond the world, completely at odds with the world and with science.”

You don’t hear that much!

Lopez also provides an “Interlude: A Primer on Buddhist Meditation” that puts the central practice of the Scientific Buddha, so-called mindfulness, in its place, concluding that “…It is inaccurate to assume that Buddhist meditation is encompassed by something called mindfulness, which has come to represent Buddhist meditation in many conversations, including those in the domain of science, in recent years.”

Lopez goes on to argue that rather than stress reduction, the more common goal of Buddhist meditation is stress induction.

“This stress is the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world. Rather than seeking a sense of peaceful satisfaction with the unfolding of experience, the goal of this practice is to produce a state of mind that is highly judgemental, indeed judging this world to be like a prison. This sense of dissatisfaction is regarded as an essential prerequisite for progress on the Buddhist path…. The Buddhist practitioner embarks on a path intended not to reduce stress or lower cholesterol, but to uproot more fundamental forms of suffering.”

And we’re not done with Lopez’s critique.

“[The Scientific Buddha] was born into a world of colonial subjugation of Asia by Europe. He fought valiantly to win Buddhism its place among the great religions of the world…. For this buddha was stripped of his many magical elements and his dharma was deracinated. The meditation he taught was only something called ‘mindfulness,’ and even then, a pale form of that practice. That is, he taught something that no other buddha in the past had taught: stress reduction.”

So where do we go from here?

Lopez suggests that “Rather than imagining things about the Buddha and his teachings for which there is no evidence, we might dwell on what is there, and the ways in which these things might somehow continue to bear meaning. The preservation of mythological and the miraculous is not merely a matter of aesthetics. At least two questions, pondered by Buddhists over the centuries, remain worthy of our contemplation: ‘What does it mean to seek the welfare of others?’ and ‘Is there a self?’

Lopez concludes by turning from the so-called original teachings (dating from the 9th century) to the Great Vehicle spin of the dharma, championed by the Diamond Sutra.

“To understand oneself, and the world, as merely a process, an extraordinary process of cause and effect, operating without an essence, yet seeing the salvation of others, who also do not exist, as the highest form of human endeavor. This is the challenge….”

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BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • Harry

    Thanks for the heads-up on Lopez’s book. That all seems like a very refreshing discussion. :-)



  • Jim B

    If Buddhism can be said to strive for the elimination of all species, then can Darwinism’s survival of the fittest not be said to strive for the elimination of all species save one? Perhaps not the same but thisclose.

    • doshoport

      Yeah, maybe. There are other differences too – evolution is materialism and random, karma mind, moral, and based on intention….
      So not so close is Lopez’s argument.

  • http://JustThis( Alan

    All of this is way over my head but it seems the more we talk about it the more we “pick and choose”. I am leaning more and more toward one bare room, one cushion and breathing and then getting up and going and doing the next things that needs to be done with the care and intimacy of a parent with a new born

  • Harry


    In what sense can we say that the teaching on karma is moral?

    I too think it can be described in certain moral terms, but what is moral is relative from culture to culture, and/or even from person to person within cultures, or even from situation to situation… which leads to the question of who, or what, is it that determines what ‘moral’ is? Of course, we have our guidelines (Precepts), but we all know that in certain very complex situations simple guidelines sort of go out the window (and then, some other times, they seem even more important!)



    • doshoport

      Yes, in karma theory, a moral frame of the world is embedded – this leads to that. The old texts tend not to be palatable for moderns – e.g., kick a dog and have a bum leg in a future life. That’s all been cleaned up in most contemporary presentations so it isn’t so literal. The precepts too have a cultural context as is shown by the complexity you mention. What about the dog above who is suffering grievously and beyond repair – encourage death or let the being suffer? Karma is another effort to imbue the chaos of the world with some order. I’m not denying, karma – let me be clear – just playing with the Lopez and implications.
      Wishing you a joyful life in many rebirths,

  • Mike Haitch

    Interesting. In many ways Zen practice and certainly monastic practice seems designed to annoy you, to ramp up the suffering to make you more aware of it. With the volume turned right up it’s much easier to find where all the noise is coming from…..

    • doshoport

      nicely put.

  • Harry


    Yes, if we jettison the idea of a sort of underlying universal moral order, and some sort of mechanism or entity or intelligence that decides universals in morality and doles out reward and punishment according (which doesn’t seem true… and actually seems essentially un-Buddhist if we look at the core teachings of Buddha?), then we are left with the notion that what is ‘moral’ is a matter of individual volition and is, ultimately, an individual matter. Scary stuff in a sense, but then the world does indeed have quite a few scary people; and what’s scarier than ‘freedom’ that is conditioned by an entrenched and very pronounced sense of self?

    Humanism may be comparable to Buddhism in a sense in that it proposes that humans are inherently good and moral if they are allowed to ‘self-actualize’… I’m thinking of the teachings on buddha-nature where Buddhism is concerned (buddha-nature as an innate potential). I think it’s probably a good thing to believe, but I can’t say I’m entirely convinced.

    It’s my understanding (probably faulty) that the Buddha’s teaching on karma, on its being about individual human volition, stood in contrast to the then traditional teaching of a universal morality (as embedded in the whole fixed cosmology, including the caste system). This strikes me as a serious development akin to the momentous changes in individual autonomy that occurred due to the European Enlightenment. Any takers?

    (I reckon Mr.Lopez would have much to say about how I’m going forward and back between historical eras here, but I really don’t have anything like a coherent thesis to defend!)



    • doshoport

      From what I understand of the traditional teaching on karma, the moral order is embedded in the universe so the action “naturally” fruits without an essence or an outside arbiter – like a Christian God – making sure it all works out. We don’t see it working sometimes due to the karmic retribution occurring in the next life or future lives.
      You may well be right about the Buddha being a revolutionary in regard to the caste system.
      Thanks, Harry,

  • Harry

    Hi Dosho,

    Personally I don’t see there is any underlying or embedded universal morality. I think morality is an invention of the human brain, and is very relative matter (as discussed). That’s not to say that the universe isn’t good for supporting me and giving me life… but any moral conclusion I draw, or don’t draw, from that seems to be my own. Sometimes the universe is a lovely place to be; sometimes it’s a shit hole. Even if we got ourselves to the enviable point of seeing it as a lovely place every day then someone else would still be seeing it as a shithole… and in many instances they would be quite justified I think!

    Therefore, it strikes me as more accurate to see karma as a law of conditionality rather than a law of morality.



    • doshoport

      Hi Harry,
      I share your view that morality is imputed … a very modern notion it is, embedded in our myth of modernity. I think the point that Lopez is making, is that we can allow the Buddha’s story – where that is not the case – and not try to squeeze it into a modern pair of jeans.

  • Harry


    I like the idea that my children believe in Santa Claus… for the time being.

    I’m possibly a little less forgiving of religion and all the mythologies we console our pathological selves with (be they ancient or modern). The sooner human beings learn to stand on their own two feet and accept radical responsibility for themselves the better IMO (I know all about it: I fail at it every day!) It seems Buddhism is very well placed to teach us in this regards, if we use it accordingly.



    • doshoport

      Amen, brother.

  • Jundo Cohen

    Thank you for the discussion, Dosho. I do not see anything improper about seeing the historical Buddha as the “founder”, brilliant but merely a first step, much like the Wright Brothers while today we might fly a 787 or a rocket into space. Though there is something Timeless, Buddhism too has evolved and changed with time as it came to China, to other cultures, to the West. Nothing wrong with saying that the historical Buddha might have been wrong and misinformed on some things, as one would assume of a man who lived 2500 years ago in a myth based world. Today we have our own new ignorance and myths, but also see the world clearer in many ways that the Buddha never could have imaged. There is nothing wrong with saying the Buddhism itself has evolved and changed … for there is something that is free of change or changeless at its Heart. Gassho, Jundo

  • Andrew

    “Thus, far from teaching a dharma compatible with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, it is perhaps more accurate to regard the Buddha as a counter-revolutionary, actively seeking the extinction of the human race, and indeed of all species, through the eradication of the selfish gene.”

    It might be called ‘natural selection’ but it seems to me that we shouldn’t forget that the theory itself doesn’t identify any ‘selection’. It identifies and explains processes and their outcomes – outcomes labelled a selection for ease of understanding. One can’t have a selection without some kind of ghost in the machine doing the ‘selecting’. And the same goes for ‘purposes’ – and especially Dawkin’s rhetorical device of a ‘selfish’ gene. To my mind this literalism keeps passing unchecked and unchallenged in so many appropriations of evolution, and which continually insinuates the latest, suspiciously contemporary cultural mutations of the desire for some kind of ghost in the machine – and often from quarters gleefully raising their hatchets to traditional forms of it.

    Perhaps this is part of the ongoing novelty of it all: the perpetual attempt to find a settled fit between the ghost and the machine – sometimes by expressing one in terms of the mutual exclusivity of the other, which is how the ghostmachine keeps us all interested, and things interesting. Something tells me the same goes for ‘karma’, which is why it hurts.

  • Neal

    “This stress is the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world.” Amen. I definitely feel like Buddhist practice has heightened my anxiety and damaged my health, not helped it. It’s instilled a lot of guilt about my usual escape routes (TV, reading, music) and the practice of being in the moment is very tiresome. I’ve put on weight since I started the practice. Nonetheless, I carry on. I’m not even sure why. I just do it.

    • bud fritz

      With all due respect, it may simply be that you’re ‘doing it wrong’- missing some key point, not balancing different aspectspractice, misinterpreting the teaching due to unexamined false assumptions. Do you have a teacher that you trust to give you an objective, compassionate viewpoint? While there are definitely times in one’s practice when one feels more lost and stressed than before, as conditioning is brought to the fore and released, the general trend should be towards more peace, freedom and contentment dwelling in the imperfect present. And this isn’t some western, new agey perversion of Buddhism, it’s the central tenet that the dharma frees us from suffering. The stress that is ‘the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world’ is the dukkha that brings us to practice, not a fruit of it.

      • Neal

        Well, of course I’m “doing it wrong.” Aren’t we all?

        • bud fritz


        • Roselle

          Hmmm. I’d say ‘yes and no’! Is there actually a ‘right’ way, and a ‘wrong’ way? There’s ‘our’ way, to the best of our ability. That’s all part of the ‘way’ of dharmic practice, isn’t it? Sometimes one gets it ‘wrong’ according to one’s own and others’ judgements, sometimes one gets it ‘right’, ditto… but it’s still a delusion as long as ego is judging, it seems to me. It’s all practice. None of us has ‘arrived’.

  • Dave Laser

    Hello Dosho-
    Boy, there’s a LOT in this post. Thank you. I really like that idea that Buddha was a counter-revolutionary- it’s a useful shift in viewpoint, I think. And, it’s also made up. As you point out, it’s going to be useful to be clear about what we’re making up, inheriting, etc., as we generate a Buddhist, and in particular, Zen, practice in the West. I don’t think it’s at all necessary to ‘claim compatibility’ with any kind of science- I’d suggest that’s a 20th century phenomenon, as exemplified by that popular use of the ‘mindfulness’ aspect of practice– an attempt to ‘validate’ Buddhism through scientific ‘proof’; to find some way to get an intellectual handle on it. The Thoeosophists & Transcendentalists of the 19th century were more interested in making science compatible w/ Buddhism (as they understood it), and in the present day, cutting edge physicists are discovering ‘Hey, this Dogen guy beat us to it!’ All fine and good to have an intellectual handle, as long as we’re clear about what it’s attached to. And making stuff up is fun!
    Thanks, Dosho

    • doshoport

      I fully agree. Thanks!

  • Roselle

    What a great post and discussions. I’ve really enjoyed reading this through. Thanks, Dosho et al.

    As I read the original blog, I was finding myself responding in ways that Mike and Harry already have.

    Then I find that Dave, and particularly Jundo, are making the points I was about to make. Excellent. What a sangha, that we can so polish the facets of the diamond!

    To add a little from my own perspective: Buddhism, like everything else, grows and transforms. That’s fine – it’s organic, and what might have worked for the Indian mindset 2500 years ago might have needed some adaptation to the contemporary Western. We can still take the essence of the Buddha’s teachings, which are perennially wise – the Four Noble Truths, for instance, simply make so much sense, and can be verified through experience; as can the ideas around attachment and aversion.

    It seemed to me reading the blog and Lopez’ words that the essence of Zen with its awareness of paradox wasn’t given enough space – one of the things that’s so useful about Zen is the notion of cutting through ‘this’ and ‘that’, reminding us that our perception of either/or dualism so gets in the way of seeing things as they are. So the question for me is not whether Buddhism is compatible or otherwise with the scientific worldview (and here I’m with Dave), but how they might complement and expand each other, what they have in common and what they might both point to. In relation to that, I’d say that evolution and karma are actually very closely intertwined: evolution of CONSCIOUSNESS is still evolution and at least as important a quality as biological evolution; and it cannot be taken as a purely individual thing, but – since we’re all interconnected – at some level is bound to be also a species’ and trans-species development.

    And mindfulness for ‘stress-reduction’ or ‘stress-induction’: why, both, of course! Learning new ways may be necessary for evolution and eventual stress reduction, but it sure as hell hurts at the time! That’s how we learn to move beyond the causes of suffering, isn’t it?


  • willy

    Small point, but the word in the quote from the book is “counter-evolutionary” instead of “counter-revolutionary”.

    • doshoport

      Yes! thanks and good catch. Now corrected.

  • Roselle

    That’s a shame! I so enjoyed ‘counter-revolutionary’, which also seems more apposite – and actually to read the actual term makes me doubt Lopez’ insight. It doesn’t seem to me that the Buddha was directing his efforts at the ‘extinction of the human race’ at all, but, surely, the extinction of what we call in our time the ego: the delusional inflated sense of individual self as separate entity? (Unless, that is, one assumes that the human race exists only by virtue of the ego/separative consciousness…)