This article is intended as a serious contribution to the debate between science and religion, more specifically a contribution to the debate currently promoted by the John Templeton Foundation. Templeton, a wealthy philanthropist, once pressed for the Nobel prize to be issued for advances in religion, but after the rejection of his idea decided to create his own alternative annual award, which has gone to a number of leading figures, including the British scientist Paul Davies. This essay is submitted under Templeton’s current theme of ‘expanding humanity’s vision of God – can we have a more comprehensive, more humble theology?’ My answer to his question is yes, if we can find a more fluid way of thinking about God, one for example that the great traditions of Buddhism could engage with. The other part of Templeton’s question is, how can science contribute to an expanded vision of God? My answer to this is as follows: through a better understanding of the religious impulse, in particular the non-theistic religious impulse which lies at the heart of a religion like Buddhism, and which has much in common with science.
To develop my answers in full, I would like to press some simple distinctions on the reader, asking them that they at least temporarily adopt my terminology. The first distinction that will be helpful in this discussion is the grouping of religious phenomena into three broad (and admittedly overlapping) categories: the ‘social’, the ‘occult’, and the ‘transcendent’. The ‘social’ dimension of the spiritual is the most easily visible: the popular religions of the world, involving creed, practice and priesthood. The ‘occult’ dimension refers to the world of spirits or disembodied beings, and to related gifts or siddhis, also called occult powers, such as clairvoyance, astral travel and so on. Note that in defining the term this way I am neither positing nor denying such phenomena, but merely responding as a form of open enquiry to the fact that the existence of such phenomena are presented by occult teachers of considerable integrity independently of each other across history and geography. They do so with considerable consistency, even for example with Rudolf Steiner and Paramahansa Yogananda in the early part of the twentieth century, who could not have known about each other’s spiritual development or teachings. The third and most difficult category to explain, in most contexts, is the ‘transcendent’, though the Buddhist reader should be relatively comfortable with it. The transcendent is the profound experience or state when an individual ceases to identify with their body, history, family, and most importantly, their desires, and when the discursive mind is silenced, revealing the pristine nature of reality. We accept that such a state is rare and hard to achieve, but exemplified in the purest degree by the Buddha.
Buddhists will agree, intellectually at least, that the term ‘Buddha’ is a generic one, and that in principle there can be more than one, or even countless Buddhas living at different times through history, even today. In practice most Buddhists have a doctrinal commitment to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The Bodhisattva ideal has been a way of dealing with the problem of the generic nature of a Buddha, though I will go into this further later on. For now, I want to press on with the idea that we can see all the geniuses of religion, including Krishna, Christ, Mohammed and Lao Tsu as embodiments of the transcendent ideal, but with one important distinction to be made: that between a devotional and a non-devotional orientation.
This distinction is the most important idea that I would like to introduce into the contemporary debate between science and religion. However, because we have no suitable term in the West for a non-devotional spirituality, I am going to use two Hindu terms: bhakti for the devotional and jnani for the non-devotional. (The ‘jn’ in jnani is pronounced like the ‘n’ in the Spanish ‘signor’.) Christ was a bhakti and founded a bhakti religion, while the Buddha was a jnani and founded a jnani religion. In the inner purity and silence of the realised individual, the distinction is meaningless, but, as soon as the great religious teacher, whether Buddha or Christ, or Eckhart or Ramakrishna, attempt to teach, they will use a language and experience that is conditioned by the three factors in their own personal history: nature, nurture, and karma. (Karma is just nurture and nature extended across lifetimes.) My contention is that the most significant personal factor in the formulation of an enlightened teacher’s doctrine is their instinctive spiritual orientation: bhakti or jnani. Where the cultural context tends to favour the opposite, for example in Eckhart’s case, we can expect a convoluted message. Indeed much of the history of both Christianity and Buddhism can be seen as a faith of one orientation under continual assault from within by individuals of the other orientation.
A bhakti orientation is a religious impulse that springs from the heart, one that centres on love. But love for what? The answer to this question, and an answer that lies hidden from most of us, is that it is an objectless love. It is a love extended to everything or to nothing, and in most bhakti traditions of the world the only word that can describe it is ‘God’ or its equivalent. Unfortunately, as few people in contemporary Western culture have, or admit to, bhakti moments, the debate around God has been a mainly futile one as to whether or not God ‘exists’ in some objective sense. When we look at the geniuses of bhakti religion, individuals like Ramakrishna, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and Teresa of Avila, we can see that for them, nothing exists but God. When the secular mind is confronted with their writings it naturally balks at the first hurdle: does or does not God exist? It is at this level that much of the debate between science and religion has taken place. The jnani concept should allow for a much more interesting debate however. But, if the concept of bhakti is hard for the Western-educated scientist to empathise with, it is at least culturally familiar. Jnani is not. This is a paradox, because, as we shall see, the jnani orientation is close to the scientific one. We can start describing it through negatives: it is non-devotional, and non-theistic. Its practices will tend to be grouped under the heading ‘meditations’ rather than ‘prayer’ or ‘worship’; it will tend to be tranquil rather than demonstrative. In the highly developed jnani we will find an emphasis on the mind, on intelligence, on enquiry, on doubt, and on the will, in contrast to the bhakti who will place emphasis on the heart, on trust, on faith, and on surrender of the will.
In any given culture we will find a population that, by instinct, is divided approximately 50-50 bhakti and jnani. What happens then to the individual of one persuasion who happens to be born into a religion of the other persuasion? In most religious eras or cultures they will have no choice but to use the prevailing language to express their own spiritual experiences, resulting in a convolution of message, or perhaps to risk heresy. The best example in the West may be Meister Eckhart, whose continual emphasis on the power of detachment above love, and on will above surrender, mark him as a great jnani. The whole of the development of Christianity, and the eventual inability to fend of the destruction of its ‘God’ by science, can be seen as a struggle to maintain the bhakti origins of the faith. Although Saint Augustine rejected the major Western jnani tradition, called Neoplatonism, because of his bhakti leanings, Neoplatonism nevertheless became the spiritual and intellectual reservoir for all thoughtful Christians of jnani persuasion to draw on. If we see Neoplatonism as the jnani vine encircling the bhakti tree of Christianity, then much of the great debates and definitions of Christian dogma can be understood as the continued efforts to prune back the perceived threat of the vine of jnani influence. Even a few years ago, the Pope was moved to remind his flock that their practice was to be understood as prayer and worship, and not as meditation.
Can we see a mirror-image development of Buddhism as a jnani tradition under continual pressure to include bhakti elements? Certainly the impression we receive of the Buddha’s teachings from the Dhammapadda, or the Elder’s Verses, are of a jnani practice par excellence. Some of the Mahayana teachings, with its pantheon of deities, can be seen as attempts to temper the extreme asceticism and purity of the original teachings for a lay public (rather than to the bhikkus of the original Sangha), and also to adapt to cultural conditions outside of India. Some of the more occult elements of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen as an example of yet another force acting on all religions: a desire by the occultists to claim the transcendent teacher as one of their own. Esoteric Christian sects have done this down the ages with Christ, right up to Besant, Bailey, and Steiner in the 20th century, and esoteric Buddhist sects have also done this with the Buddha. But, I would contend, the biggest force on the Mahayana schools would have been from the 50% of adherents with bhakti instincts, possibly a factor in the development of the Bodhisattva ideal. The eventual demise of Buddhism in India under the Muslim onslaught can also be seen in this light: Islam, with its intensely demonstrative bhakti orientation, could make something of an accommodation with Hinduism, but would have found Buddhism quite baffling, and would have mistaken the Buddhist temple imagery as idolatrous, thus leading to the widespread destruction of Buddhist temples in the 12th century.
It is in the West however, that the lack of a mainstream jnani tradition has had the biggest impact on the eventual relationship between religion and science, and the eventual secularisation of contemporary Western society. But the West so nearly did have a jnani religion: one that could have been founded by Socrates. He had two great jnani predecessors: Pythagoras and Heraclitus, and one great jnani successor: Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. Historians have often mused on the similarities between Socrates and Christ, and it may well be that it was simply in the personality of their immediate apologists (Plato for one, and Saint Paul for the other) that Europe became Christian instead of Socratic. Plato’s gift, for better or for worse, was part literary, part philosophical, and part political (particularly in the Republic and Laws). He was a genius in his own right, rather than the inspired and gifted devotee that we find in Paul, but the eventual impact on the intellectual and spiritual development of Europe was profound: the development of philosophy rather than jnani. The Christians of the Middle Ages were persuaded by the bhakti church that inquiry into the nature of the universe was unnecessary, that the Revelation in the Bible, was sufficient. The collapse of the certainties of Empire was another force that tended to give the population a passive outlook, drawing comfort from the Redeemer and giving obedience to the Church. It was only in the Renaissance that a confidence returned that man could shape his world and destiny, and that an outward enquiry could reveal the laws of nature, not adequately delineated in the Revelation of Christ. This was time of renewed interest in the jnani tradition of Neoplatonism, and became the time of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. But the Church needed to defend the natural structures of a bhakti faith, which cannot easily accommodate doubt and enquiry. Ironies abound: Galileo was forced to recant his heliocentric theory, the first theory that could properly explain the movements of the planets, yet it was the very ignorance of this in the Manichean bishop Faustus that caused Saint Augustine to turn away from Manicheanism and become such a powerful force in early Christianity. There was nothing in Galileo’s teachings that went against the Bible, but, according to Richard Tarnas, it was Dante’s sublime artistry in the Divine Comedy that impressed on the late medieval mind the image of the heavenly spheres with the Earth at their centre, and God at the highest.
The Church fought science and lost. It fought it for many reasons. One of these was that the repressed jnani geniuses of Christianity found little scope for expression of their instincts, other than in ever more convoluted arguments proving the existence of God. If we look at Descartes and Spinoza for example, we find that the bulk of Meditations and the Ethics devoted to nothing else, yet these men are clearly jnani types for whom a theistic world-view is somewhat unnatural. The activities of Christians like these led to the growing acceptance of the ‘argument from design’, of God as the extraordinary creative force behind the universe. (The bhakti of course needs no proof or argument.) This unfortunately led to a collision course with science, which began to explain the richness and complexity of natural phenomena in terms that required no deity. In the 18th and 19th centuries God retreated to the position of original creator, one who set up the starting conditions and stepped back as the universe unfolded. This was termed the ‘Deist’ view, but was unsatisfactory either from a religious or scientific worldview. We see the final irony of the West: that the bhakti faith of Christianity could not accommodate its jnani geniuses; their activities, though not intended initially to be anti-religious, led to the development of science, which in turn proved an incompatible system of thought to that largely developed by the jnani element in Christianity.
In the East we find that despite Buddhism taking hold on vast populations, science as we know it today never developed. Could this be because jnani individuals could express their sense of inquiry through religious channels? Could it also be because the renunciative traditions of the East were balanced by the concept of an active compassion, rather than the active love of the Christians, a difference in emphasis that none the less allowed for the Christian to be more actively engaged in the world? An engagement that provided a fruitful soil for science, and a science-based medicine? Whatever these speculations it is clear that the West had its own Buddhas, lost to the West because they have been understood as philosophers, or as men of God struggling to express themselves in a bhakti faith. We can list them as Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plotinus, Eckhart, and Spinoza. In more recent times we could include Walt Whitman, Krishnamurti, Douglas Harding and Andrew Cohen. However, the most significant figure for jnani in the West is probably Plotinus, because, according to the scholars, his writings are relatively complete and authentic, despite some attempts at mythologising by his chief disciple, Porphry. Plotinus, as a third-century Buddha of the West, is doubly misunderstood: firstly as a philosopher, and secondly as being in thrall to Plato. If we re-examine him alongside Buddhist writings of comparable authenticity, then we might pick the fourteenth century Tibetan Buddhist, Longchenpa, who’s ‘explication of the words of the Victorious One’ is both in the tradition and yet powerful because of Longchenpa’s own jnani insight. Neoplatonists, Buddhists, and Christians may find this controversial, but I would suggest that Plotinus needs Plato no more than Longchenpa needs the Buddha, or Eckhart needs Christ.
But, if we take the original Buddhist illumination in as far as we can get to it, how does it relate to the world of the scientist of comparable stature? I would argue that almost all the great scientists talk about moments of awe in confrontation with the sublime order revealed by their researches, and about a lifetime devoted to these peak moments. Whether it is Einstein, whose religious instincts found resonance with those of Spinoza, or Richard Dawkins, who believes that science is incompatible with any kind of religious leaning, scientists of the 20th century have been increasingly vocal in describing the exalted vision that science can present. I would suggest that these moments are really jnani moments, and that the lifelong passion for science comes from the same inner ground as do the religious imperatives of a jnani genius like the Buddha. But the Buddha turned inwards, while the scientists turned outwards. If we sometimes doubt the extent of the Buddha’s renunciative stance, then one only has to look at the Elder’s Verses, a collection of the sayings of the earliest disciples to see that not only has each individual (probably several dozen men and women) been profoundly illuminated by contact with the great teacher, but that they are convinced of the end of birth and death. Some even comment that they are merely waiting out their days before their complete and joyous extinction. While I am personally moved by their collective testimony, it is here that I suspect that many scientists will find difficulties. By establishing a new harmony between the inward and outward impulses, these difficulties should disappear however.
To conclude: the debate between science and religion has been sidetracked by the emphasis on theistic issues. The language of God belongs to the bhaktis. It is said that God exists through faith, but for the bhakti this is a weak statement, rather God exists through love. And science will never have a voice on this subject. But the language and vision of the jnanis, though inwardly directed, is not so far removed from the language of the scientists, with intelligence, reason, doubt, enquiry and determination of will at the forefront. The scientist conquers the outer nature, the jnani conquers the inner nature (hence the Buddha’s sobriquet as the ‘Victorious One’). By re-assessing the ‘lost Buddhas of the West’ we should discover the proper common ground between science and religion.