Buddhists Discuss Science in Modern China

A review of Buddhists Discuss Science in Modern China (1895-1949)by ERIK J HAMMERSTROM

Buddhists Discuss Science in Modern China is an innovative and fascinating exploration of the many ways Chinese Buddhists struggled to come to terms with the ever-increasing influence of science and scientism during the late Qing and Republican periods. The dramatic impact of largely European discourses of modernity on the political and social development of China during these formative decades has already been examined from numerous perspectives—intellectual history, political theory, economic development, etc.—and in the last few years several excellent dissertations and monographs have looked more closely at how Buddhist and Daoist communities responded to the challenges of this era. Erik J. Hammerstrom’s dissertation makes an important contribution to this growing body of work through a detailed and engaging study of the formation of a specifically Buddhist discourse on the nature and relevance contemporary scientific knowledge.

For the purposes of this study, the author defines a “Buddhist” as anyone who has formally taken the “Triple Refuge” (in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) or anyone who engages exclusively or principally in some form of specifically Buddhist cultivation. Within the broader Buddhist community, there was a subset of monks, laypeople, and sympathetic intellectuals that took up the task of defining and policing the relationship between the reified entities of “Buddhism” and “science.” Among these individuals, some sought to demonstrate the compatibility of traditional Buddhist doctrines and scientific knowledge while others wanted to establish the superiority of Buddhist insight over and above western empiricism. In stark contrast to much of the Chinese cognoscenti, very few of these Buddhist apologists were willing to consider that scientific discoveries might have rendered some aspects of Buddhist doctrine irrelevant.

Despite such reluctance, this study demonstrates how the introduction of a scientific discourse did result in a major re-envisioning of the form and function of Chinese Buddhism, from a traditional emphasis on ethics, soteriology, and epistemology to a new focus on descriptions of the natural world. It was not a reinterpretation that pleased everyone, but those Buddhists who did advocate this new orientation were particularly vocal and their many publications established the content of the debate. The arguments set forth in their essays typically relied on one or more of the following three claims: (1) that the truths of Buddhism and the truths of science are the same, (2) that Buddhism represents a higher form of empiricism, and (3) that Buddhism, unlike science, is grounded in ethics. The first claim was supported through reference to often obscure Buddhist texts which were selectively and creatively read to demonstrate that the Buddha had perceived the nature of the world in its totality, including, but by no means limited to recent scientific “discoveries.” The related argument that Buddhism represented a higher empiricism was grounded in the Buddhist belief that all buddhas are endowed with supernatural powers which permit them to see all things—material and immaterial—precisely as they are. Scientists, in contrast, can only rely on their sense faculties which, even with the aid of sophisticated equipment, were inherently flawed and therefore inevitably reflected a distorted and fragmented image of the physical world. Finally, Buddhists lamented the fact that, for all its acknowledged benefits, science lacked a moral center. For these reasons, Buddhists argued that Buddhism, with its empiricism, insight, and ethics, represented a more compassionate and more complete system of knowledge.

The content of the dissertation is organized (mostly) chronologically. The first chapter is introductory, defining the terms of the study (Buddhism, science, modernity), reviewing previous scholarship, and discussing the primary sources—half a dozen books and roughly one hundred articles culled from the massive Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng 民國佛教期刊文獻集成.

Chapter two covers the late Qing period (roughly 1895-1911) and provides an excellent summary of the state and significance of scientific knowledge in China at the turn of the twentieth century (incisive synopses of the major political and intellectual developments of the Republican era are found throughout the dissertation.) The author shows how early discussions of the scientific qualities of Buddhism were initiated by lay intellectuals like Tan Sitong and Zhang Taiyan, who were searching for ways to use traditional Chinese thought to inform the construction of a modern nation-state. And yet, as innovative as their approaches might have been, the work of these men had little effect on either subsequent political policies or Buddhist hermeneutics.

It was not until after the fall of the Qing that the Buddhism and science discourse began to develop in earnest. The third chapter discusses the period between the Xinhai revolution and the May Fourth Movement (1912-1919), setting Buddhist developments within the context of broader social and political debates. Some of the most enduring components of the Buddhist and science discourse took shape during this period. In the 1910’s, the influential Buddhist layman Yang Wenhui, along with his students Ouyang Jingwu and the monk Taixu, employed modern philosophical and scientific conceptual frameworks to reinterpret Buddhist doctrines. The prominence of Buddhist laymen in these debates, some of whom had little regard for the monastic vocation, suggests that certain Chinese intellectuals felt that Buddhist doctrine was too important to be left to Buddhist monks. This would change in subsequent decades as monastics began to adopt and expand on the arguments of prominent laymen.

Chapter four covers the period from the May Fourth Movement to the Northern Expedition (1919-1927). The May Fourth period represented a shift in the Buddhist discourse on science as authors and audiences begin to expand both geographically, beyond the Jiangnan region to other areas of China, and demographically, from the laity to the clergy. During the 1920’s, Buddhist clerics, particularly those associated with Taixu (the most vocal and prolific proponent of monastic reform and modernization), his Wuchang seminary, or his Haichao yin journal, began to take a more central role in discussions of Buddhism and science. Lay or monastic, Chinese Buddhists, like Chinese intellectuals, were attempting to fuse the findings of modern astronomy, biology, and psychology with traditional Chinese modes of thinking. In almost all instances, the influence was unidirectional—the sciences (and to a lesser extent, philosophy) dictated the terms of discussion. Buddhists were responding to or defending themselves against a succession of imported theoretical and evidential insights, but their arguments never seem to have influenced the dominant discourses of Chinese intelligentsia, much less the modern West.

Chapter five is not focused on a historical period but rather on the claim that the Buddha, by means of his supernatural powers, had observed the existence of microscopic organisms thousands of years before the advent of modern microbiology. This is a fascinating point, not only because it bolstered the claim that Buddhism represented a higher empiricism, but because Buddhists were citing the existence of supernatural powers as the basis for their empirical knowledge. As the author notes, this complicates the common assumption that the Buddhist community was divided into “reform” and “conservative,” or “rational” and “superstitious” camps. Even the most fervent modernizers did not question the veracity of core Buddhist beliefs such as the acquisition of supernatural powers, the workings of karma, or cycle of reincarnation.

Chapters six and seven examine the Nanjing decade (1928-1937). The former focuses on the work of Wang Xiaoxu—a western trained scientist and scholar whose sympathetic writings on the relationship between Buddhism and science were particularly influential—while the latter looks at internal debates about the limits of the Buddhism and science discourse. While discussions about the compatibility of Buddhism and science continued throughout the 1930’s, their frequency did not increase in conjunction with the expanding the number of Buddhist publications. The author suggests that by the Nanjing decade, scientism-based anti-religious rhetoric had begun to subside and Buddhist authors felt less embattled and therefore less compelled to defend themselves against detractors.

Chapter eight covers the period from 1937-1949. By the early 40s, a more or less coherent discourse on Buddhist and science had been established. The writings of Lu Bicheng and You Zhibiao, which are the focus of this chapter, recapitulate many of the same arguments set forth by earlier authors. This period was distinguished primarily by the reemergence of ethical critiques of science in light of the horrible death and destruction made possible by new military technologies. Apologists argued that Buddhism could not only provide science with a moral foundation, it could also offer definitive answers about the nature of life and death—something which appeared woefully beyond the reach of the materialistic sciences.

A brief epilogue situates the dissertation within the broader context of science and religion studies, and two appendixes delve deeper into the life and work of Wang Xiaoxu. The first is an extended biography and the second is a translation of his essay The Basic Problematic of Science (Kexue zhi genben wenti 科學之根本問題).

We are fortunate to have this carefully considered examination of the confluence of Buddhism, modernity, history, and science. This dissertation illuminates not only the late Qing and Republican periods but also allows us to see some of the foundations of contemporary Chinese Buddhism in a new light.

Primary Sources

Minguo fojiao qikan wenxian jicheng 民國佛教期刊文獻集成

Dissertation Information

Indiana University, 2010. 506 pp. Advisor: Aaron Stalnaker.

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