Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 1

The Physical World

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Dalai Lama XIV
Thupten Jinpa
Ian Coghlan
  • Sommerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , November
     552 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The first of a projected four volume series, this handsome and affordable book is the work of many minds. Science and Philosophy In The Indian Buddhist Classics: Volume 1: The Physical World is conceived and introduced by the Dalai Lama and uses texts chosen by Geshes Jangchup Sangye, Ngawang Sangye, Chisa Drungchen Rinpoche and Lobsang Khechock as its source material—texts subsequently translated by Ian Coghlan. The resulting material has also been edited, introduced, and discussed by Thupten Jinpa. In parts Two through Six, the heart of this book, the reader will encounter Indian Buddhist scholastic concerns with the material elements, sensibilia, the sensory capacities, time, atomism, cosmology, theories of the body, the brain, and even discussions of micro-organisms found in the body.

This book is ambitious, its thematic and temporal scope vast. An initial book cited, the Jñānaprasthāna (47), possibly derives from 100 BCE, while one of the last genres of works engaged, the so-called Anuttarayogatantra-s (424)— a term unattested in Sanskrit—belongs to the last phase of medieval Indian Buddhism, enjoying particular salience from the 8th to the 13th centuries CE. 

There is much that one can learn from this book. The essays introduce their materials and the translations are readable. While you can safely recommend this book to non-initiates, there are sufficient details and topics to maintain the interest of specialists. And though one might miss the inclusion of extended arguments from primary sources to read in running translations—the only way to fully appreciate the rational contours of sustained concern with a topic— the  benefit of this missed opportunity is that one can read this book straight through, and not merely consult it.

However, this book does not quite meet expectation. For example, a more accurate title would have been: “The Indian Buddhist Classics As Regarded From the Vantage Point of Tibetan Buddhists.” All the included translations have been produced only from texts found in the Tibetan canon (the Tengyur), and their use is limited to the Tibetan translations even where Indic originals are available. There is no engagement with materials from Pāli (traditionally unimportant to Tibetan Buddhists), or materials from South Asian texts that now survive only in Chinese translations, which includes the vast bulk of output in the first five hundred years of Buddhist scholasticism. Also absent are notable studies that contribute to the history of the concepts discussed in this volume on the basis of Indic materials and contexts which appear to have exerted little to no pressure on the history of Buddhism in Tibet.

It would be prudent, then, not to treat the title phrase “Indian Buddhist Classics” as a historically descriptive term. Rather, the term—like the phrase “The Nālanda Tradition” used so ubiquitously in this book—gestures towards a constitutive part of Tibetan Buddhists’ self-understanding of their own history. Indeed, perhaps this volume should not be viewed in the spirit of an independent scholarly reconstruction of natural philosophy in Indian Buddhism, but as a significant event in the ongoing life of Tibetan Buddhism.I’ll first develop the point negatively before offering a more positive construal of the situation.

Despite the stated ambition of this series (viii-ix), this book does notoffer a historyof ideas, much less a volume in the discipline known as history of science. There is no attempt to write the history of the numerous and varied practices and paradigms within which knowledge was generated and evaluated, or the ways in which knowledge developed in one context could be made available in others. Nor are premodern disciplinary categorizations of knowledge defined. Thus, this book does not disambiguate what is implied by “Buddhist Medical Literature,” a term that might be used to grasp several different varieties of knowledge and epistemic practices, including the variety of exacting anatomical knowledge developed in the context of contemplative exercises; the materia medica systematized in literature addressing the ostensive regimens governing the daily life of monks; the knowledge of embryology developed in the context of cosmology; or the contributions of Buddhists to what scholars typically mean by Indian medicine (Āyurveda), which in turn should carefully be distinguished from ostensibly related material to be found in esoteric Buddhist literature (Tantra). In this volume, no attempt has been made to specify the diverse intellectual contexts and circumstances in which the knowledge under review was produced. Notably absent —especially when discussing knowledge of the nervous system and the brain–—is the special effort required by historians of science to keep modern concepts and contemporary words separate from premodern contexts, which is particularly important, as Dominik Wujastyk wisely notes, “when the ancient term really does seem to capture the modern concept” (The Roots of Āyurveda: Selections From Sanskrit Medical Writings, (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998), 35-36).

Taken only as a history of science, this book suffers from many of the faults and missteps that plagued the groundbreaking and multivolume project Science and Civilisation in India: the lack of historiographical training of its authors; the use made of totalizing civilizational categories without clear focus on periods or themes; and the internalization of an implicit, normative standard—that of contemporary “European” science—taken as the singular measure of achievement and salience (a factor particularly evident in this book on 342; and 344-345).

Forget about the history of science, however: this book is more profitably taken as representing an event in the ongoing life of what the Dalai Lama calls “[the] scientific and philosophical dimensions” (vii-viii) of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a moment of culturally paradigmatic encounter between contemporary scientists and Tibetan Buddhist scholar-practitioners (partially exemplified in the long-running Mind and Life Dialogues). This continuing conversation is meant to encourage a reevaluation, with the help of Tibetan Buddhism, of what “science” might mean, and specifically, what a “science of the mind”—to be fleshed out in subsequent volumes of this project—might look like.

To my mind, when understood as a move made within a conversation, what is on offer in this volume is happily distinct from what the history of science might reveal of Buddhism in the past or what was taught by the reductive, scientizing cultural creation that was the “Scientific Buddha” of the 19th century (Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Scientific Buddha: His Short and Happy Life, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)). I am looking forward to the second volume of this project, even as I continue to hope that one day we will have additional texts capable of doing “cognitive justice” to the overlooked history of natural philosophy and science in premodern South Asia, a history to which so many Buddhist scholars and institutions have contributed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sonam Kachru is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and a beacon of inspiration for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. He is admired also for his more than four decades of systematic dialogues with scientists exploring ways to developing new evidence-based approaches to alleviation of suffering and promoting human flourishing. He is the co-founder of the Mind and Life Institute and has helped to revolutionize traditional Tibetan monastic curriculum by incorporating the teaching of modern science. He is a great champion of the great Indian Nalanda tradition of science, philosophy, and wisdom practices.

Thupten Jinpa is a well-known Buddhist scholar and has been the principal English-language translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama for more than three decades. A former monk and a Geshe Lharampa, he also holds a BA in philosophy and a PhD in religious studies, both from Cambridge University. His is the author and translator of many books and teaches at McGill University in Montreal.


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