Chinese Buddhism in the Age of Science: 1920s

Erik Hammerstrom, from Pacific Lutheran University, presented a talk in three parts: possibilities for the relationship of Buddhism and science, the history that led to the juxtaposition of the two ideologies, and the resulting relationship. I will summarize what I learned from his discussion following this same outline.

In the first place, it is important to acknowledge that science and Buddhism are large, complex ideologies, each spanning great lengths of time, and there are, of course, going to be specific exceptions to the generalizations that could be concluded from a one hour presentation. Initially, Hammerstrom presented Jose Cabezon’s model, which includes three possible outcomes for the joining of science and religion: 1) conflict/ambivalence (such as is typically found in the U.S. today, that religion and science are distinctly different and opposing), 2) compatibility/identity (they are one and the same, simply defined differently, such that Buddhism is a flavor of science), and 3) complementarity (both religion and science have their own individual goals, and may work together in instances to support one another while upholding each one’s own claims, inevitably this is the most complicated of the three. A modern day example is the neuroscience study of what happens physiologically when people religiously meditate).

Major shocks to Chinese government, identity, and globalism in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, including its semi-colonial status, played a large role in bringing close Buddhism and religion. Both the war on opium and other, larger-profile wars with Russia and Japan, in addition to a semi-colonial government, in which foreign entities held entire control of major trade locales, caused a crises for China in its identity, confidence, and understanding of the world on a global scale. In order to combat this disorientation, a sudden, concentrated embrace of modern science took place, and a widespread intellectual conversation of, “What is truth? What is science?” took hold. This could happen only in this democratic, moment in history of calm, between the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the civil war in the 40s. This movement led to an increased interest in technology, science, and, especially, textbook translations. The majority of translations included philosophical works, but also some with hard science focus. This shift in identity from Confucianism to secular altered the education system that had been in place for millennia. Students even began studying abroad in Japan and U.S., places that strongly embraced ideas of science and modernity, equated simultaneously with Western-ness and power. Hammerstrom pointed out that the key to remember about Chinese ideas of science in the 20s was it was just that – an idea. Scholars were not practicing lab science, but merely engaging in heavy discussion of its theory. The term “Kexue,” or science, could be seen everywhere and tacked on to many phrases. At this same time, many anti-religious movements were popping up in China, incorporating the “one or the other” rhetoric initiated by the Enlightenment period. Science became important to Buddhists because of its widespread place in conversation and the more personal attacks of anti-religion, including Buddhism, by utilizing science as anti-rhetoric.

For his research, Hammerstrom relied mostly on Buddhist pulp publications from the 1920s, generally from laymen, but including several clergy and one female poet. Of these, a well-known writer, Taixu, was prolific.  Buddhism adhered to the concept that there is no absolute knowledge; rather, information is relative and there does not exist one truth. To Buddhism, science is based on the premise that there is exists absoluteness, which is the source of their doubt in science. Buddhists believe that “knowledge is subjective”. While this may sound as though it adheres to Cabezon’s “conflict,” Buddhism in the 20s tried to find ways to follow more of a “identity” path. Buddhists saw that, like science, their beliefs were based upon cause and effect. Buddhism’s only sources of accepted authority were inference and direct experience (meditation), rather than a God, as many other religions, Further, Buddhists took as proof for their alignment with science that Buddha “recognized” microorganisms through meditation, in “knowing things very small and very large,” and observed astronomy because he “knew of many worlds.” Overall, Buddhists adhered to an “identity” relationship with science, as defined by Cabezon.

I did not previously have very much knowledge on the history of Buddhism, China, nor especially, the relationship between science and Buddhism, and am glad to have attended such an informative event outside of my areas of study!

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