Science and Spirituality

A talk by Martin Verhoeven Ph.D. at the Institute of World Religions
Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, November 1997

Just to say a little bit about how I came to this topic, I think I am basically a humanist; I am not a scientist. And that is probably more by default than anything else. The reason I say this is that, actually early in my youth, I was quite enthusiastic about science. I was in school when Sputnik was launched. I witnessed my educational program change almost overnight, from a humanistic-based curriculum to one that was driven by science and research in order to compete with the Russians who had launched Sputnik.

This enthusiasm carried over; I got excited, too, and got into science and the deeper I got into it, the more I had an intuitive feeling it wasn't deep enough for me. It wasn't dealing with ultimate phenomena, but only with the surface of things. And even though I had a scholarship to continue in science, I chose not to do so. Sometime around the end of my high school years when I was choosing between places to go, I read a book on psychology and then read a book on Buddhism. I put the two together and came to the conclusion, "Ahah! This is what I've been looking for: the study of the mind." I had a realization that the mind is probably— according to psychology and Buddhism—the primary motivating factor in our behavior. It is what roots and underlies all we do. Our attitudes, our opinions, and our emotion are all within the realm of mind, as are our unexamined presuppositions, our preconceptions. This is what governs our lives. So I thought, "Ahah! I'm going to study the mind." And, of course, looking into the dictionary, I saw that psychology is the study of the mind.

And so when I went to the University, I immediately went to the Psychology Department, eager to penetrate the eternal verities through the Psychology Department. Much to my dismay, the Psychology Department was totally caught up with torturing monkeys and rats, particularly so at this institution—University of Wisconsin in Madison, in the 1960s.

There was a fellow there by the name of Harry Harlow. He did deprivation experiments on Rhesus monkeys; actually his experiments were quite horrible. He would take the monkeys away from their mothers and give them surrogate dolls; the dolls had pins sticking out of them, so that whenever the baby monkeys hugged the dolls, they would get zapped with the pins, and of course undergo an adversive experience. Then for comfort he put them into completely cylindrical containers, so that they had nothing to hang onto. That was his first experiment.

His second experiment was to observe these monkeys' reproductive behavior, and how they would relate to their second and third generation offspring, their own little baby monkeys. Anyone with an I.Q. of 50 would know that they would be totally dysfunctional and not know how to raise children. And when the experiments were over, the monkeys were sent to the local zoo. The local Madison residents would go there and see these poor, totally psychotic monkeys in the zoo. Children whose first encounter with nature was through their trips to the zoo and observing the monkeys that came out of Harlow's lab, must have developed a Hobbesian view that life was truly nasty, brutish and short.

Well, I didn't stay in the Psychology Department. I took one course, held my breath, and got through it. There was another fellow there by the name of Carl Rodgers, with whom I studied. He was a humanistic psychologist interested in the kinds of questions I was interested in. Unfortunately, when I got there, all the money was going to Harlow, and Rodgers had left, so when I asked if I could study with Carl Rodgers, I was told, "No; he has left." Then the man turned to me and under his breath he said, "It's a little bit like the ship abandoning the sinking rats." I didn't quite understand it until a semester later; then I began to see his meaning. So as a result, I didn't go into science. I moved into the most interesting department on that campus, which was the History Department. And I pretty much stayed in that field.

The work that I am doing is basically the encounter of East and West, in very broad terms. I know there's difficulty with what's East and what's West, and I don't want to go into that tonight. I only want to say that's my interest. My formal training is anthropology, history, religion, and philosophy. That is the orientation of this presentation. My dissertation was the examination of the East and West encounter in a very specific way, and asking the question: "What is Buddhism going to look like as it comes into Europe and America?" I was posing that Buddhism migrated from India, to China, to Tibet, to Japan and so forth—every place it goes it changes the culture and it is also changed by the culture it encounters. There is a reciprocal change and transformation that takes place. And so the question I posed was, "What's going to happen when Buddhism comes to the U.S.? How will it change the U.S., and how will the U.S. change Buddhism? That is where I began.

The reason I did this research is because those were the two worlds I have personally experienced in my lifetime: East and West; Buddhism and America. But it is also because, since the end of World War II, there has been extant a notable amount of historical opinion suggesting that this encounter between East and West, between Asia and the U.S., is probably going to be the most significant event of the modern era. Here is a quote from Bertrand Russell at the end of World War II to illustrate: "If we are to feel at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance."

Recently a historian by the name of Arthur Versluis, who just came out with a new book entitled American Transcen­dentalism and Asian Religions, pieced together five or six major historical views on this subject and presented this quote, "However much people today realize it, the encounter of Oriental and Occidental religious and philosophical traditions, of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic perspectives, must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary meetings of our age.


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