As a pioneering scholar of peace studies, psychologist David Barash is known for crossing disciplinary lines to answer difficult questions about the human condition. In so doing, he is also known for shedding more light than heat – a remarkable thing to do considering the empirical and normative disciplines from which he’s drawn, such as evolutionary biology and ethics.
His recent book, Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom meets Modern Science, is no exception. Barash draws from biology, Buddhism, and existentialism to consider the human experience and what it means for human beings to live, suffer, and die in the natural world.
One of the most remarkable features of the book, which anyone familiar to religious studies or the natural sciences will appreciate, is the overlap between Buddhism and biology. By combining a “user friendly” version of Buddhism with the basics of biology, Barash does to Buddhism what Jefferson did to Christianity with his Jeffersonian Bible: make the religion more akin to natural science, and show how the naturalistic view is compatible with some religious teachings.
Barash shows, for instance, that Buddhism and biology have independently arrived at similar insights about the nature of reality, especially when it comes to the following: Both recognize that there is “no-self” or permanent essence to any one being but rather “dependent originations” that emerge from the organization of underlying matter, which is itself ever changing and impermanent. Likewise, both appreciate the “impermanence” of natural events and that all facets of nature – from organisms to ecological niches – are in flux with only fleeting instances of homeostasis or stability. Perhaps most remarkably, both Buddhism and biology appreciate the fact that all living things experience pain and suffering to remain in homeostasis and that all things in nature, despite enormous variability, are interrelated.
Besides exploring the overlap between Buddhism and biology, Barash makes a convincing case for humanizing the sciences and engaging modern problems with a Buddhist and biologically-minded viewpoint. If one takes this viewpoint seriously, one sees the need for adopting the Buddhist ethic of “ahimsa” and embracing a “middle path” toward solving today’s problems. This entails committing no harm or minimizing harm to all organisms and avoiding extreme solutions to life’s problems, actions that stem from one’s mindfulness about the interconnectedness of all organisms in nature.
Another aspect of the book that is rather unique is Barash’s position on the meaning of life, which he articulates through the novel lens of “existential bio-Buddhism.” In a nutshell, this is the view that although life has no inherent meaning beyond survival and reproduction, the position of human beings in nature demands being mindful and responsible toward the natural world. Put simply, because nature has endowed us with complex thought, we have come to know the way the world is through biology and how we ought to act in the world through philosophical systems such as Buddhism and existentialism.
Taken together, existential bio-Buddhism does not entail pessimism about the human condition or what it means to live and die in the natural world but instead is a kind of admiration for all of life; a view akin to what Darwin long ago observed: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”