The Scientific Buddha 3, The Problem With Karma

The Scientific Buddha 2,  Building a Better Buddha

This is the third of four lectures given by Prof. Donald Lopez at Yale University as part of the Dwight H. Terry Lecture Series on Religion and Science. The first one was shown here, and the second one here.

In this week’s talk Prof. Lopez asks whether one of the central teachings of Buddhism, Karma, is consistent with the teaching of evolution. In the late 19th century and the early years of the 20th, under the influence of Theosophy, this was one of the main claims in favour of Buddhism.

Prof. Lopez asks whether this is really the case, and points out that in nearly every way the doctrines are in fact at odds with each other. They do not have the same aims, they also conflict over many very important matters like the emergence of consciousness. There is a lot of food for thought in all this, which goes against what many have taken for granted.

Prof. Lopez’ point is not that Buddhism is somehow wrong, but that its aims, descriptions and procedures cannot be reduced to a lesser world-view, and we must be open to the fact that it may contradict, or not be in line with, some of our received notions.

The only problem I have with this lecture is that Prof Lopez rather jumps between Theravāda teachings and Mahāyāna teachings, which on certain crucial points differ, and thereby muddies the waters somewhat. I think it would have been better to one or other viewpoint, and to have seen how that measures up against the scientific outlook.

There is a very interesting Q&A after the lecture again, in which Prof. Lopez fields questions from his learned audience.


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