Review: Buddhist Biology

Buddhist Biology

David P. Barash

Forgive me a nostalgia trip to 1994, when alt-jazz rockers Soul Coughing released their Buddhist Biologydebut album Ruby Vroom. The lead track was “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” a hypnotic, oddly existential number allegedly inspired by a bad acid trip in which singer Mike Doughty must distinguish between himself and his surroundings.

It made for a great song, but any biologist will tell you it doesn’t hold up to modern science. Or, for that matter, not-so-modern philosophy.

But Doughty was working toward something significant in that trippy little tune: Where does the “I” end and the “everything else” begin?

It may very well be at the intersection of science and spirituality, according to scientist and self-described Buddhist atheist David P. Barash, author of the brilliant Buddhist Biology.

He admits at the beginning that his goal is an ambitious one: to locate common ground where science and spirituality may coexist. Whereas the Abrahamic religions have long been at odds with science, he argues that Buddhist thought is compatible with high school textbooks.

“Why? Because among the key aspects of Buddhism, we find insistence that knowledge must be gained through personal experience rather than reliance on the authority of sacred texts or the teachings of avowed masters, because its orientation is empirical rather than theoretical, and because it rejects any conception of absolutes.” (18)

That is to say, it allows for the scientific method.

Barash eloquently connects the principles of anatman (not-self), anitya (impermanence) and pratityasamputpada (interdependence) to current biological knowledge. Science has shattered the duality of the actor and the environment, and in doing so has validated thousands of years of Buddhist philosophy.

I am particularly interested in anitya, which leads us into discussions regarding the illusion of time and motion. In considering life as a sequence of moments, Barash distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self (which is similar to Sartre’s Pre-Reflective Cogito, but don’t get me started on my boy Jean-Paul).

The main idea is that each moment is unique and temporary. Nothing lasts, except for in memory, through which we develop a narrative and impose continuity.

Now, I’ll leave the scientific explanations to Barash, as I’m not very qualified to give a proper breakdown, and only slightly more so to discuss eastern philosophy. What I am qualified to provide, though , is a recommendation of Buddhist Biology. Barash takes difficult concepts and presents them in a thoroughly readable and enjoyable narrative. You’ll learn new things, brush up on your philosophy and find it difficult to close this book.

You’ll come away with the realization that there is no distinction between Chicago and Not Chicago, Is and Is Not. There is only this moment.

Or more simply put, There Is.

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