By John Author
Test tubes, beakers, bubble bubble, gurgle gurgle, buzz, sizzle, ZAP!
A crazy-haired, wild-eyed eccentric in a lab coat hopping manically from station to station. That’s my modus operandi. Only the laboratory is the meditative mind, and the experiment is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Empiricism is hardwired into the American psyche. You probably use the scientific method on a daily basis without realizing it; asking questions, doing research, testing a hypothesis, and forming a theory. That’s pretty much the way that we solve problems in day-to-day life.
I think that Buddhism is ripe for experimentation. Many lineage Buddhists may disagree with me, and that’s okay. Yet I feel that Secular Buddhism is the future of Buddhadharma in the West, but this road isn’t without its risks.
It’s dangerous to think that theism, atheism, and agnosticism are compatible with Buddhist practice. All three have to be tossed out to fully engage the process. It’s dangerous to think that Buddhism is solely about mundane practicality and indifferent to the mystical. It’s dangerous to lean too far into scientism and forsake the transcendent.
It’s vital that we find a middle way between elitist religious dogma and cold scientism; a balance between the mystical and the mundane.
Even though I think Buddhism is compatible with the scientific method, I feel that it has to be a soft science (though the line between soft and hard science is blurred); more in league with psychology, anthropology, and archaeology than physics and biology.
Hard sciences involve controlled experiments, objective measurements, and quantifiable data. That might apply when we’re talking about changes in reaction time, attention span, and the white/gray matter in the brain but Buddhism isn’t about the brain. Buddhism is about the mind.
The mind is our subjective, personal experience. It can’t be tested or measured because it isn’t a thing in the conventional sense. American psychology stalled for several decades thanks to fucking behaviorism, which focused entirely on the objective.
Behaviorists didn’t care about the hard problems like consciousness, feelings, and perception because those phenomena can’t be observed. I’m relieved that cognitive psychology eventually came in and saved the day. Though, honestly, I’m even dissatisfied with the cognitive approach.
Secular Buddhism faces a similar challenge. We can’t marginalize the personal in favor of the impersonal; Buddhism doesn’t work that way. We can’t dismiss subjective experience and cling to weights and measures. Yet we can still experiment. For the most part, Buddhists use natural and field experiments rather than controlled experiments.
I’d consider Mr. Sid Buddha to be a scientist.
He asked a question: “Why are sickness, old age, and death stressful? Why is losing what we love and getting what we hate stressful?” He did research by leaving home and going from teacher to teacher, practice to practice.
His hypothesis was, “If this theory is strong, then I will be relieved of stress.” The null hypothesis to that is, “If this theory is weak, then I’ll continue to be stressed.” The practices were the independent variables, and dukkha (stress) was the dependent variable.
Each practice supported the null hypothesis, but that’s alright. A null hypothesis isn’t a failure, it just means that we have to keep questioning. “Failure” is sometimes even more informative than “success.”
Really, the B-Man arrived at his own theory by using the process of elimination.
After exhausting all the teachers and paradigms available, Siddhartha went off on his own. He created his own experiment based on all the research he’d collected. That night beneath the Bodhi Tree just outside of Uruvela, he finally found an experiment that validated his hypothesis.
From that came his theory: The Four Noble Truths.
Buddhism has grown and evolved a lot since then. There are many different theories, and each of them can be tested the same way that Sid tested the popular theories of his time. There are also dozens of practices that can be used to test these theories.
Most lineage Buddhists advocate sticking with a method throughout one’s life. I can’t do that. A scientist doesn’t run the same scenario for their entire career. The scientist learns from each test and then asks more questions and performs different tests.
To me, it isn’t the length of time that’s vital, but the exertion, diligence, and intensity that’s applied to each technique that’s vital. Since Secular Buddhism is outside of any official lineage, we can experiment with any technique provided by the Three Vehicles.
We can even try non-Buddhist techniques or (gasp!) create our own. All Buddhists movements, even secular, have the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in common. Beyond that core, there are infinite opportunities to experiment. An unfathomable amount of ways to test the Path, practice the Path, and be the Path.
This makes practice fun.
Excerpt from the upcoming book: “Good News from the Void!”
Editor: Dana Gornall