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Buddhism and biology: a not-so-odd couple

By David P. Barash


Science and religion don’t generally get along very well, from the Catholic Church’s denunciation of the heliocentric solar system to vigorous denials — mostly from fundamentalist Protestantism this time — of evolution by natural selection. Add to this Kipling’s claim that “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet,” and one might expect that an Eastern religion (any Eastern religion), would be especially incompatible with science. But one would be wrong.

In fact, there already exists a lively literature regarding the supposed parallels and convergences between Eastern religions (especially Hinduism and Buddhism) and physics, including such book-length treatments as The Tao of Physics, and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. I have no objection to these efforts at concordance, except that they omit the most dramatic and potentially enriching correspondence of all: between Buddhism and biology.

Buddhism’s appeal in the West has thus far mostly involved its promise of increased inner serenity, derived primarily from mindful meditation, to which can be added a developing strain of “socially engaged Buddhism,” as reflected in the political activism of the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma/Myanmar, and the beloved Vietnamese scholar/monk Thich Nhat Hanh, along with numerous Western activists such as Joanna Macy and the late Robert Aitken. It turns out that in addition, Buddhism and biology have much to say to each other. In part, this might be because Buddhism can be considered as much a philosophy and intellectual perspective as a traditional religion. That is certainly the nature of my own Buddhist “practice,” which has little patience for those aspects of Buddhism that resemble standard religions: belief in various supernatural deities, worship of relics or statues, taking fairy tales as literal truth. But wipe away the mystical nonsense and abracadabra, and we find that many of the foundational ideas of Buddhism converge with newly revealed, empirically-based insights of biology, especially the disciplines of ecology, evolution, genetics, and development.

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam by Jack French, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam

Take, for example, the Buddhism concept of anatman, which is often translated as “not-self.” This notion, seemingly so perplexing to the Western mind, actually speaks directly to modern biology, insofar as anatman does not mean that individuals don’t exist, but rather, that they aren’t composed of a solid, unchanging, internal core that is fundamentally distinct from its surroundings. Thus, when the Dalai Lama flies – by airplane, not on a magical Buddhist broomstick – from northern India to the US in order to attend a public symposium, he purchases a ticket in his name, and places his altogether corporeal body in a seat. By anatman, Buddhists mean that no one is a fixed, internal “one,” separate from his or her surroundings. This recognition is especially important to ecologists, who understand that every organism is inextricably tied to its environment, so that it is meaningless to study, for example, North American bison in isolation from their prairie habitat, or to separate a heron from its marsh. For a “master” of physiological ecology, the skin of an animal doesn’t wall it off from its surroundings so much as it joins the two. Ditto for a Buddhist master.

By the same token, neurobiologists know that there is no tiny controlling homunculus or “little green man” residing somewhere inside our brain and constituting each “self.” Instead of being analogous to a peach or avocado, which contains a hard, internal core, our bodies as well as our minds are continuous with rather than walled off from the rest of our central nervous systems and indeed, from the outside world. Getting to our fundamental selves is more like peeling an onion: after removing layer after layer, there is literally nothing left … nothing, that is, distinct from the “nothing” that constitutes the surrounding atmosphere while all this peeling has been going on.

The relationship between genes and bodies, as understood by modern evolutionary biology as well as developmental genetics, conveys a similar lesson. Thus, as emphasized by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, bodies – although certainly real – are not the primary focus of evolution. Bodies come and go, deriving their temporary existence from appropriate conglomerations of various molecules and atoms scavenged from the Earth’s atomic and subatomic trash heap. Genes, on the other hand, have at least the potential of being immortal (although in reality, they also change via mutation, if our perspective is sufficiently expanded over time). Our bodies, our “selves,” in any event, are 100% composed of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “non-self elements,” literally indistinguishable from those same elements that constitute plants, rocks, soil, and other animals as well as people that have come before us and will continue after us.

“We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water,” wrote Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics and one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century. Wiener went on: “We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves.” On this, Buddhists and biologists agree.

David P. Barash has been an evolutionary biologist as well as a devotee of Buddhist thought for more than 40 years; he is professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and author of more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific research articles as well as 34 books, including Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.

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Image credit: Perfume Pagoda 042 by Jack French from San Francisco, USA, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

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2 Responses to “Buddhism and biology: a not-so-odd couple”
  1. Poh Tiong Ho says:

    Any smart guy wants to prove the writer is wrong? There is “not-self” but the life-flux (life force) goes on.

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