Sep 26, 2020
Martin Goodson

Blog: The ‘Dharmafication’ of Science

Is science being infiltrated by estoeric ideas from Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism? What are the ramifications for Western cultural understanding and how we see ourselves in the world?

Blake's watercoloured etching The Ancient of Days.



As regular listeners to The Zen Gateway talks will know, we mention often the secularisation of Buddhism here in the West and somewhat lament this pruning away of traditions as a pity; inasmuch as excluding things due to taste is not a good way to explore new ways of living in this world. Surely, it is precisely this exploration that is a motivation for some of us walking the Buddha’s path?

However, the Dharma is organic and has agency of its own and perhaps just as much as Cartesian Humanism infiltrates and morphs the Buddhadharma, so Dharmic ideas infiltrate and influence that greatest edifice of Western thought, ‘Science’.

It can have escaped few people’s attention that science is getting… well, a bit mystical these days!

Perhaps one of the first and better known intrusions of Dharmic memes into science was The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, first published in 1975 and which has moved through various subsequent editions. A child of the 60s, Capra freely admitted that his fusion of theoretical physics and Eastern mysticism (including Buddhism), was a result of regular ingestions of psychedelics. Fair to say, that he was not the first and certainly won’t be the last to be attracted to the Dharma via this biochemical route. In fact, some biologists are wondering if this biochemistry is itself a sentient agent in the transmission of ideas and profundities across the world.

Capra’s book was received with adulation in some quarters…

"Fritjof Capra, in The Tao of Physics, seeks ... an integration of the mathematical world view of modern physics and the mystical visions of Buddha and Krishna. Where others have failed miserably in trying to unite these seemingly different world views, Capra, a high-energy theorist, has succeeded admirably. I strongly recommend the book to both layman and scientist.” [1]

and condemnation in others:

“At the heart of the matter is Mr. Capra's methodology – his use of what seem to me to be accidental similarities of language as if these were somehow evidence of deeply rooted connections. Thus I agree with Capra when he writes, "Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both." What no one needs, in my opinion, is this superficial and profoundly misleading book.” [2]

Whatever your view on his book, there is little doubt that this was just the beginning of a tsunami of additional literature that sought to open up a debate about the accepted world-view upon which much of 19th and 20th century science has been based, ergo, the objective world ‘out there’ is separate from the world of mind ‘in here’. In addition, this objective world can be fully explained by breaking it down to rudimentary elements (reductionism), which have an external reality only (materialism), and no inner or subjective world of its own and therefore no sentience, volition or agency. From this arose the whole mechanistic view of the universe = God is dead = no inherent meaning in the universe = existential angst = lots of people wearing black polo-neck sweaters, French berets, dark glasses and standing alone in the corner at parties in Paris during the 1960s.

The curious thing is that the history of science tells us that this mechanistic world-view precedes scientific investigation rather than being proved by it. For a history and useful exposition of these ideas of how modern science developed I would recommend Henri Bortoft, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, pub. Floris Books, Edinburgh (1996).

The problem here is not with science, rather with a particular world-view. What is more, this mechanistic world-view is under attack by the scientific data itself. This is despite the fact that, to begin with, such forays into any other world view that challenged the mechanistic view were marginalised. There is good reason for this, as this particular view of our insentient world allows humankind to see the world as something that could thereby be owned, commodified and sold without any fear of moral redress. This is a perspective that would appall the indigenous peoples that Europeans colonised, viewed as not-human and thereby objectified, commodified and sold.

Inevitably, the pushback from this world-view came via the biological sciences, in particular ecology with its emphasis on systems-thinking, exploring not ‘things’ so much as the relationship between them.

In this interview, Merlin Sheldrake (son of biologist Rupert Sheldrake - of morphic resonance fame), talks about fungi, but just listen to what he says about self, identity, nested selves and perspectivism. Doesn’t this sound like a version of anatta - No-I, sunyata - emptiness of any self-nature and the holographic perspective of Huayen Buddhism?

Merlin Sheldrake: The Philosophy of Fungi

The notion of dependent origination and the reciprocity that it implies is explored by Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire (As fine an example of nominative determinism, as you shall find). This book explores how shifting perspective can open up new understandings of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Whilst Pollan does not take the consequential leap into panpsychism that this understanding implies, it is a fascinating take on who is controlling whom.

Michael Pollen: A Plant's-Eye View

These intrusions into science by Dharmic memes may be considered little more than curiosities in the onward march of science’s progress to understand the world, except that, like its materialist forebear, this more holistic world view carries ethical implications. Ethical implications in turn condition how we relate to each other and inevitably to ourselves too.

Charles Eisenstein, is a writer, ecologist and speaker on precisely this subject of how we deal with our current climate problems by changing our relationship with the world and our place in it. We recently featured a review of his book Climate: A New Story, where he uses Thich Nhat Hanh’s term ‘interbeing’ as the basis for the driving ethos of the argument he lays out in this work. This argument is that we are leaving an ‘old’ story of separation and objectification and need to embark on the ‘new’ old story of mutual arising - and here we are back into the Mahayana. You can catch an interview with him from 2018 below:

Charles Eisenstein on Living The Change


[1] "An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism” by Victor N. Mansfield

[2] Jeremy Bernstein (1982). Science Observed. New York: Basic Books. pp. 333–34


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