Buddhism has existed as an organized religion for over 2000 years. By religion, we mean that it has a concept of the profane, the sacred, and approaches to the sacred. It has been established in India, China, Japan, and other eastern cultures for almost 2000 years and has gained a strong foothold in North America and Europe in the past few centuries. However, one might ask: what fate would Buddhism face if Siddartha Guatama were born in modern times, specifically in modern-day North America? Would his newfound enlightenment be accepted now as it was thousands of years ago? Would it be shunned by society as another cult” movement? What conflicts or similarities would it find with modern science, particularly physics? The answers to these questions are the aim of this paper, as well as a deeper understanding of modern Buddhism.
Although I will stick with traditional ideas raised by Buddhism, one detail in the story of Siddhartha Gautama must be addressed in order for it to be relevant to the main question being asked: What obstacles would Siddhartha Gautama face had he been born in modern-day North America? Primarily, it must be recognized that rather than being born into the Hindu religion (which in itself is mystical), Siddhartha would have most likely been born into a Christian family. This, in itself, presents the first obstacle, that being that Christianity is a strictly monotheistic and non-mystical faith. Hence, from the outset, although in the traditional story Siddhartha faced a conflict with his father (Ludwig 137), in the North American scenario, the conflict would have been heightened by the fact that his search for enlightenment was not even closely similar to the Christian faith. As with science, changes in religious thought are often met with strong opposition. It is interesting to note, though, that many parallels can be found between modern physics and Eastern Mysticism.
As Fritjof Capra writes, The changes brought about by modern physics all seem to lead towards a view of the world which is very similar to the views held in Eastern Mysticism. The concepts of modern physics often show surprising parallels to the ideas expressed in the religious philosophies of the Far East” (17-18). Thus, by examining some of the obstacles imposed by typical Western thought on modern physicists attempting to develop new theories, we can apply the same conclusions to the situation that would be faced by Siddartha Guatama in modern-day North America.
Traditionally, Western thought can be summed up by the French philosopher René Descartes’ famous saying, Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I exist.” That is, typically, Western man has always equated identity with his mind, instead of his whole organism (Capra 23). This same line of thought can be found in traditional Newtonian Mechanics, in which the observer of an event is never taken into account when describing the event. Rather, all things are said to occur at an “absolute time” in space, without taking into account the observer’s position or speed relative to the event or the rest of the Universe. However, in the beginning of the 20th century, new developments in physics began to shake the framework of the scientific world.
Due mostly to the work of Albert Einstein, as well as Ernest Rutherford and others, the scientific view of the universe took a drastic turn. These scientists recognized flaws in the classical Newtonian view of the universe, which led to the development of the Quantum Theory of Matter and Einstein’s Relativity Theory. These theories, and the discoveries that they led to, incorporated the entire universe as being comprised of energy. They showed that particles, time, and space are just different representations of this energy.
Naturally, this faced strict opposition. So much so that despite its groundbreaking nature and the fact that it had been proven, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity failed to earn him the Nobel Prize. Even to this day, many find it difficult to comprehend these more abstract theories. Both concepts – that of empty space and that of solid material bodies (Newtonian Mechanics) – are deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. Therefore, it is extremely difficult for us to imagine a physical reality where they do not apply (Capra 64). Thus, by applying the obstacles faced by modern physicists, it is easy to see how a more close-minded Western way of thought would be skeptical of Siddhartha’s new philosophy.
Rather than accepting or even recognizing the more abstract theory of reality.