Plum Village, the monastery in France founded by Zen Master and global spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022), and ProSocial World, a nonprofit organization dedicated to consciously evolving a world that works for all, recently organized a retreat at Plum Village titled “Spirituality, Science, and Action." Here is how the theme of the retreat was framed:

These three words are potent by themselves but how do they go together? Spirituality often seems like the opposite of action, but some of the most committed forms of activism come from spiritual leaders, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King. Spirituality and Science are sometimes treated as opposites but there is an emerging science of spirituality and a dialogue of increasing depth and benefit between them. Science often remains "inside the Ivory Tower", aloof from the real world, yet there can be no real-world solutions to the problems of modern existence without science.

If the engaged Buddhism perspective of Plum Village and the science-based perspective of ProSocial World can be brought into alignment, then that can go a long way toward integrating the three words for the rest of the world.

This print conversation between David Sloan Wilson, president of ProSocial World, and Brother Phap Linh, one of the senior monks of Plum Village, explores the theme of the retreat for a wider audience.

David Sloan Wilson (DSW): Greetings, Phap Linh! I’m greatly looking forward to this conversation. Please accept my sympathy for the recent passing of Thich Nhat Hanh. I know that he is often referred to as Thay, which is Vietnamese for “teacher”, and I will follow that practice here. For our readers, I highly recommend a documentary of his life titled A Cloud Never Dies, which I will draw upon during our conversation.

Brother Phap Linh (BPL): Thank you, David. I am very much looking forward to this conversation. It’s wonderful to feel the depth of your interest in Buddhism. My Teacher, Thay, was convinced that the disciplines of science and spirituality could learn from each other and that, in fact, they must find a way to work together harmoniously in order to continue to progress in the future. I’m confident that this dialogue can be a step toward that vision.

DSW: I’d like to begin by reflecting upon our three keywords, spirituality, science, and action, from an engaged Buddhism perspective. At the end of the documentary, Thay states “We need a real awakening, a real enlightenment. We need to change our way of thinking and seeing things. And this is possible. And our century should be a century of spirituality. Whether we can survive or not depends on it.”

What did Thay mean by the word “spirituality” in this sentence? More generally, since the word “spirituality” means so many different things to different people, what should our “way of thinking” be about spirituality from an engaged Buddhism perspective?

BPL: A starting point, for me, as a Zen Buddhist, is not to be sure. If I think I know the answer to this question, then I can be sure that I have fallen into a trap. Some things cannot be said. Language has inherent limitations of which we must be acutely aware as we venture into the territory of the spiritual. If I think I “know” what spirituality is, or if I think I can say what it is, then I am no longer in touch with spirituality. The map is not the territory. The word is not the thing, and more importantly, the word is not the non-thing.

Spirituality is not a thing to be grasped or defined, and part of the difficulty in talking about spirituality is our addiction, as a culture, to that which can be grasped or defined, or a belief that ultimately, things are definite, well-defined entities. This is profoundly counter to our experience if we examine it carefully — try to find a single entity and you will find only a web of inter-relations and mutual dependencies. From an electron to a galaxy, nothing really has a clear, definite boundary — the thingness of a thing is only an artifact of our perception, reinforced by language, and by naming, to give the appearance of separateness.

So how can we proceed, given that this exchange is to happen using words? In Zen we are invited to suspend all notions and theories about spirituality and see if instead of having an idea about it, we can have an experience of it, right now, not later.

I am a child of so-called “scientific thinking” and (naive) rationalism, by which I mean skepticism and logical positivism, and a belief that everything should be provable, definite, or at least falsifiable. So, in my search for something more, after the death of my mother when I was eighteen, I quickly ran into problems. I did not want to believe in this “something more” unless I could prove it to myself. And so I came to Plum Village, thinking that if Thay was all everyone said he was, then perhaps he would be able to present me with definitive proof of that “something more,” whatever it might turn out to be.

But what I did not understand at the time was that my inability to see any “evidence” of the Spiritual dimension, was not evidence of the non-reality of the Spiritual Dimension. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes. But what I mean here is even stronger than that: the ability to recognize evidence as evidence precedes the question of being able to determine the presence or absence of that evidence, let alone our ability to determine the presence or absence of the phenomenon in question. It may be that a critical perceptual shift, and prior to that a corresponding conceptual shift, is necessary before we’re even able to recognise what is right in front of us. They who have eyes to see, let them see… So, did I find the evidence I was looking for? Or did I learn to see the evidence that was always already there but which had been, until that moment, invisible to me?

I traveled to Plum Village, full of my 19-year-old materialistic hubris to spend four weeks there in the summer of 1999. One afternoon we were invited to practice “total relaxation” and “touching the earth”—and I went along, with low expectations. First, we were invited to lie down on our backs, and then we were guided by a monk to scan our whole body with our awareness, slowly—allowing all tension to gradually release, in each muscle, in each sensation, and even in our feelings… gradually letting go and allowing ourselves to rest more and more deeply on the ground, on Mother Earth. Then we stood up and were guided into the “child’s pose” in which all four limbs and forehead touch the earth. The monk then invited us to contemplate our ancestors, our parents, our teachers, our friends, and our connection to all living beings.

The monk first asked us to recognize all the beautiful qualities we have received from them — all the talents, creativity, intelligence, and love we have received from our blood family; all the insights, qualities, and skills that have been nurtured in us by our education, by our culture, by the place where we lived — including our awareness of justice, our compassion, and even the relative safety and security that most of us grew up with; all the moments our friends helped us, listened to us, supported us, were there for us; and all the ways in which we are the continuation of millions upon millions of years of the gradual evolution of life, awareness, beauty, and inquisitiveness.

He then invited us to bring to mind all that we have received from our various lineages of transmission that is less beautiful, all the unskillful habits, the reactivity, the patterns of stress and anger, fear and anxiety, the need to perform, or the feeling of never being good enough, that we may have received from our family, as well as the nationalism, racism, intolerance, sexism, greed, striving, and so on that we may have received from our society. He invited us to let all that go and to give rise to the wish not to pass on what is less beautiful, but to pass on to future generations only what is most beautiful, good, and true.

I cannot really do justice to the power of this practice, which unfolded over a couple of hours, but what I can recall is how different I felt when I left the hall. I did not want to talk to anyone, I did not want to do anything, I just wanted to be with this feeling. So I went to lie down in my tent, which was just under the eaves of the forest. And I just lay there. My thinking had completely stopped. And a nightingale started to sing — it seemed to be incredibly close to my tent — maybe just two or three meters away. And because my body was so relaxed, and I had released so much anxiety, tension, striving, judging, and reacting, I was really there, in a way that I had probably never been before, or at least not since I was a toddler.

I was fully present and the sound of the nightingale just came in, without any filter. I wasn’t thinking “this is beautiful,” or, “is that a nightingale?,” or anything else. There was just sound. A glorious, joyous outpouring of sound — like a string of pearls, each perfect, each flowing liquidly into the next, with no interruption of thinking, comparing, grasping, or even trying to understand. It was beauty, it was life, and it was love. There was no distinction between me and the sound, me and the nightingale, me and the cosmos. It was like drinking from the purest source of life and beauty and it was in me and around me and utterly boundless. There was no time, no space, and no need for anything to be other than what it was.

Eventually, I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. Everything I had been looking for was continually right in front of me, or not even in front, just… there, in the present moment arising of experiencing, without any distinction between perceiver and perceived. And why had I not been able to touch it before? Because my mind had not been trained — because I was distracted, dispersed, and full of notions and opinions about the nature of reality. You could also say that it was because I had been trained, but trained in a different way — I had been trained to see the world as made of matter, which was basically inert, indifferent, and soulless — just stuff, endlessly bouncing off other stuff, obeying so-called “physical laws,” eternally, deterministically churning all the stuff, producing different configurations of stuff, meaninglessly, until the eventual heat-death of the universe.

So when you ask me what our “way of thinking” should be about spirituality, I think the best answer is that it should be the way of non-thinking. It is only by stopping our thinking, stopping the constant internal narration of what is going on, that we can have a true encounter with reality. Everything and anything can be spiritual — any moment can be a moment of spirituality. The question is how to get in touch with the dimension of spirituality which is there, available, in every moment. And that takes some training.

Everything we do in Plum Village can be understood to be different aspects of this training. We can look at any daily action, anything that we do, and ask ourselves, how can I make this action, this moment, into a moment of spirituality, of depth, of beauty? Let us take the example of drinking a cup of tea. Often, when we drink a cup of tea, we do it rather carelessly, without our full awareness, whilst reading the news on our telephone, or whilst thinking about our research. We may finish the tea and wonder what happened to it. Or we suddenly notice that we had completely forgotten that we were drinking a cup of tea and now it is cold.

In Plum Village, Thay has trained us to drink a cup of tea in a different way. We want to be fully present so that we become fully aware of the tea, of the taste, the warmth, the feeling of the liquid as it rolls across the tongue, the beauty of the steam rising in a beam of sunlight, and the feelings in our body. We so often ignore what is going on inside us, and it takes some time to start to notice the world which is within us — the echoes in our feelings of uncomfortable situations, of things that did not go well, of the pressure that we habitually feel, as well as the feelings of ease, of stillness, of love and gratitude. We start to notice our body, the pleasant feelings, the neutral feelings, and even the slightly unpleasant feelings of pain or discomfort that may be there. And we learn to rest in those feelings, to settle deeper into the sensations of the present moment, to immerse ourselves more and more fully into the stream of life. Because if we are thinking about any of these things, or rehearsing a story in our mind about that thing that happened, or that thing we have to do, then our attention narrows — its quality diminishes, and we miss most of what is really going on.

We want to really be there, and to sustain the “being there.” We can call the awareness of what is going on in the present moment “mindfulness,” and the ability to sustain that mindfulness and stay in the present moment can be called “concentration.” Both of these can be cultivated to a very high degree. Any time we are paying attention to what is going on in the present moment, that is considered training, or cultivation of the energy of mindfulness. When we maintain this training of our attention as a daily practice, the strength of our mindfulness and concentration can gradually increase. My sense is that this capacity to be present and stably established, with uninterrupted awareness, is in some sense infinite. I have the feeling that approaching the present moment is asymptotic — you can keep getting closer, and keep going deeper, and it is without end — but that is just a metaphor.

If we are able to develop the strength of our mindfulness and concentration then we may touch insight. And as scientists, I think we are very interested in insight. We want to see the true face of reality. We want to make a breakthrough and perceive the true nature of things, and of ourselves. We want to understand reality, but perhaps we jump too quickly to understanding, without really having developed the capacity of seeing. And this is what I realized after hearing the nightingale. I realized that I was in a world of potential depth and beauty and wonder all the time. But I was cut off from it because I was too distracted, too busy, and carrying too many emotional scars, which made me reactive. I was being pushed around by my conditioning, my inheritance, my certainty, my hubris in relation to my understanding of the nature of reality, and by my inability to feel and be with the pain I was carrying. And all of that was keeping me away from seeing and feeling things as they really were.

So the idea is that something as simple as drinking a cup of tea can be an infinitely deep encounter with reality — a truly spiritual experience — but we need some training in order to be able to touch it. Anything can be spiritual if we do it with our full presence, our full awareness, and our full sensitivity. But this “full,” hides a lot of depth, which can take some time to develop. The wonderful thing is that because the capacity of being fully there is seemingly infinite, then we are all beginners, and we can just joyfully continue to develop and train this capacity, without striving or trying to get anywhere.

Now I have written much more than I expected to or intended to, but you did ask quite a hard question. I am curious to know how much of this resonated with you and whether or not you think this would resonate with and be comprehensible to a wider scientific audience.

Brother Phap Linh and David Sloan Wilson

DSW: Thank you for such a rich response to my first question! If I were to identify one passage to serve as a definition of spirituality, it would be this one from the “touching the earth” experience that had such an impact on you: “The wish not to pass on what is less beautiful, but to pass on to future generations only what is most beautiful, good and true.”

I’ll take my turn at greater length later on, but now I think it will be most helpful to reflect upon one of our other keywords: Action. Some of what you have said about spirituality seems to imply inaction. You write that there was “no need for anything to be other than what it was” and that we can develop this joyful capacity “without striving or trying to get anywhere”. But that would be a false representation of Buddhism throughout its history and especially the engaged form of Buddhism for which Thay is known! In the documentary, Thay speaks about his perceived need to reform Buddhism in Vietnam when he was a young man and to be actively engaged during the Vietnam War rather than meditating inside a monastery. His form of Buddhism called him and others to become tireless social activists and to even sacrifice their lives to protest injustices. Please help me and our readers understand how joyous being in the moment leads to action in the world.

While we’re at it, let’s make the important distinction between individual action and collective action. What you have described so far is an individual state of mind, although you received the experience from a whole community. But when it comes to action, there is little that an individual can do on his or her own. There must be collective action and that requires a whole dimension of social organization. Then there is Thay’s famous utterance that the next Buddha might be a Sangha (a community). Please take as much time on this part of our conversation as you did on spirituality.

BPL: I would be wary of reducing spirituality to any one definition, even something like “the wish not to pass on what is less beautiful, but to pass on to future generations only what is most beautiful, good, and true.” This wish can be called “the will to the good” and it is quite a wonderful thing to discover it within oneself, and to find out how strong it is — but even that can seem to be "explained" within a materialistic worldview. What I am pointing to is that there is something more, something mysterious and elusive, something our minds cannot fully grasp, but that is at the same time verifiable because with the right training (and sometimes just by accident, or by a powerful conjunction of conditions in our life that unexpectedly shakes us out of our "normal" way of seeing things) we can all touch this wonder, this mystery. So we can verify it through our own experience, but we cannot say much about it.

How to respond to the question about inaction?

Surprisingly enough, Buddhism is openly self-contradictory. This is very important to understand. When we first start to practice, we may be told that life is impermanent, that we will get sick, grow old, and die someday, so we have to practice hard now to become a Buddha. And the Buddha seems to be very different from us, something very far away. We may be told that it takes thousands of lifetimes to become a Buddha. We are told to practice like our hair is on fire, because we are lucky in this life to have been born as a human, and we don’t know when we will have that good fortune again. But then later on, as our practice progresses, we may hear things like: “there is no birth and no death, there is nothing to attain, nothing to realize, you are already what you are searching for. You have the Buddha nature in you already, you don’t have to do anything.” So it’s very confusing.

Perhaps it would be important here to introduce the ideas of the Ultimate and the Historical dimensions in Buddhism. Neither of these two are thought to exist separately—they only exist in interdependence with each other. This is frequently misunderstood. They are also not descriptions of reality, even though they appear to be descriptions of reality. Rather, they are modes of seeing, and modes of understanding, which are something like different modes of operation of our brain-in-relationship-with-the-world. It is a recognition that we have at least two fundamentally different modes of bringing the world into being, and these two modes appear to contradict each other.

At the level of the Historical Truth, we see that you are different from me, the flower is not a dog; the dog is not a planet and the planet is not a star. Everything is itself, and each thing is different and unique. But at the level of the Ultimate Truth, we start to see that nothing can exist by itself, as a separate entity. When you look into yourself, you see your ancestors, you see the whole history of evolution, and you see millions of different species that have evolved and given rise to the appearance of a human being. We also see that we are interdependent with the planet, the earth, the water the air for our food, and with the sun and the moon too. If you try to draw a boundary around what is you, it has to keep expanding to include all the things that are needed to maintain you as you—air, food, society, planet, space, time, consciousness… In everything, you see everything else. Even for one particle of dust to have manifested exactly as it is now, the whole universe had to participate, so in that sense, everything is in everything else and nothing is by itself, alone. This corresponds to what David Bohm called the Implicate Order whereas the historical dimension corresponds to the Explicate Order.

According to David Bohm, in the implicate order, everything is in everything else, the all is in the one, and everything is implicated in everything else. When we look into the leaf, we see the rain, the clouds, the wind, and the sun — we see the tree that has given rise to the leaf and the forest that has given rise to the tree. Looking deeper into the leaf, we can see the whole cosmos has come together to produce this beautiful leaf — if anything was absent then this leaf could not have come about, it is the product of the collaboration of all of space, time, and our own consciousness.

Looking from the point of view of the conventional truth, we see the leaf as being separate from the tree, we believe that we are separate from the leaf, an “objective” observer. We see ourselves as separate, independent entities, so-called “individuals.” And this corresponds to David Bohm’s “explicate order” in which everything is separable, identifiable, categorizable, and nameable. So whenever we encounter a Buddhist teaching, we have to know which level of reality it refers to, because there are sutras that offer teachings at the level of the Historical Truth, and there are sutras that offer teachings at the level of the Ultimate Truth. You can find passages in which the Buddha addresses his attendant, Ananda as a separate person, uses the normal personal pronouns, talks about where they have been, where they are going, and so on. And then in other sutras, he declares that there is no separate self, and even that there is no such thing as a human being!

When I spoke about the experience of hearing the nightingale, I was describing an experience of a kind of grace — I was suddenly in touch, thanks to the practice of touching the earth, and thanks to my openness as a total beginner, with the ultimate dimension of reality, not through any special ability of my own, but as a result of the power of collective practice and the environment. But what is the result of touching the ultimate? It does not make us passive or indifferent. Seeing for a moment that there is a kind of perfection to everything just as it is, and that there is no need to struggle or strive to attain anything is profoundly refreshing and healing, it gives rise right away to immense joy and freedom. It also gives rise to compassion, because we can see that most of us, most of the time, are not able to taste that freedom and peace. We become very motivated to help ourselves and others to suffer less and to discover the peace and joy which is available in the heart of the present moment.

Thay speaks about a third dimension, between the Ultimate and the Historical, which he calls the “Action Dimension.” The idea is that those who have been able to touch the Ultimate Dimension continue to see and feel the suffering of the world — and they want to help others to also be liberated from their suffering and touch the Ultimate. Freed from fear and confusion by being able to dwell in peace and happiness, they are able to engage fully in the world of contingency and suffering, to do everything they can to reduce the suffering that they encounter, without drowning in that suffering.

This is the role of the Bodhisattva — an awakened being who stays in the world to help all others to awaken too. Now this may sound quite idealistic, and perhaps it is more realistic to see ourselves as “part-time” Bodhisattvas — sometimes we are able to touch the ultimate and engage with equanimity, with freedom, and with the capacity to let go of our notions, and at other times we can get triggered, we can be overwhelmed, and we can think that it’s worth sacrificing means for ends. But I hope you can see that there is nothing passive or inactive about someone who is in touch with this “ultimate truth,” to whatever extent.

Thay didn't speak about being engaged in the peace movement instead of practicing sitting in the monastery — what he said was that when you practice sitting meditation in the temple, you hear the bombs going off around you, and because you have compassion, you cannot only stay in the temple where you are safe, but you want to act to help reduce the suffering around you. It is because you have cultivated compassion in your heart and loosened the grip of selfishness through the contemplation of interdependence that when you hear the suffering around you, you have to act.

But the action that arises from the stillness of meditation has its own special flavor — you can respond to the threat, the fear, the anxiety, hate, and anger differently from before because now you have peace within you. You don't act from a sense of desperation or panic, because you know that if you do that, you may risk making the situation worse. Because you have cultivated within yourself the ability to touch peace and happiness in the here and now, then you are free, and so you can do everything that needs to be done, without feeling that your happiness or peace is dependent on getting it done — you're already happy. Someone like that can make a big difference in a crisis, someone who is very relaxed, very peaceful, very still.

Regarding the distinction between what I described, which could be understood to be an “individual” experience, and the vast collective action problems that we face, there is much which could be said. In Buddhism, we tend to resist making a hard distinction between individual and collective. We train ourselves to see that the individual is made only of the collective, and the collective is made only of individuals, so there is again interdependence between these two aspects of reality.

At the same time, it is very true that for us, community—living together as brothers and sisters—is very important. Being able to come together as a bigger body, as a group of people who share a certain aspiration is crucial to our way of living. But that larger body only works when each cell in the body is able to take good care of itself. That means that each one of us has to do the work of understanding ourselves. Of course, we don't exactly do that work alone, because it is only with the support of the community that it takes place. We speak of the phenomenon of collective energy. When we are all practicing together, even though we may not be talking, there is another kind of deep communication, and maybe synchronization is taking place. It becomes much easier to concentrate the mind and to go deep into contemplation when we practice together as a community.

So the individual practice is very dependent on the community practice, and vice-versa. When we face something as vast as the climate emergency, it is true that we have to act together, as a whole species, otherwise whatever we do will not be enough. But we know that there is also a potential for collective ignorance, collective anger, collective hatred, and collective panic. We could accelerate and even cause the destruction of our civilization if we act together from a feeling of desperation or panic. But if within the collective, there can be a few people who have found within themselves a deep resource of freedom, of peace, then maybe that peace will also radiate around them and help us collectively to act with wisdom, with calm, and with clarity.

As for the word “science,” to me, science is a method, not a philosophical position — it is a method of inquiry by which we can move from one theory, or model, to a better one in response to evidence that contradicts our original theory or model. In that respect, science is very close to Buddhist practice, which can also be understood as a set of methods, and not as a description of reality. Buddhism does not set out to describe reality, it just offers guidelines by which we can make experiments in the laboratory of our own first-person experience. We could also say that science embodies a refusal to accept anything as true merely because of hearsay, or because of arguments from authority, with a corresponding commitment to subject all claims to testing, where possible directly, and otherwise by a trusted community of peers. In this sense, science is in principle anti-dogmatic. And Buddhism is also in principle anti-dogmatic. But like in any tradition, the rot sometimes sets in.

The Buddha explicitly instructed his disciples not to believe something just because it was written in a holy book, proclaimed by a great teacher (even the Buddha himself), or accepted by tradition, but rather to test every method or practice for themselves and to see if it helped in reducing suffering. Of course, we have to be humble before we decide that a practice “doesn’t work,” because it may just be that we have not followed the instructions carefully enough, or because we have misunderstood them. This is why it is also important to have a community, and a teacher to guide us and help us to correct our misunderstandings, just as within the scientific community.

There is also the question of the quality of the instrument we use to make our experiment. If in the context of a scientific experiment, we use instruments that have not been properly maintained or are faulty, or if the data is noisy, then it will be very difficult to do good science. Similarly in Buddhism, if our mind is full of confusion and noise, then although we may think we are doing good practice, we may actually just be going around in circles—because the mind can be understood to be our primary instrument of investigation. So, the process of learning to calm and concentrate the mind, to develop attentional stability and freedom from our habits and compulsions, is crucial if we are to make progress on the path of practice. I think that kind of mental clarity and inner silence could also very much benefit scientists!

DSW: Thank you again for such a thoughtful reflection! Now I am eager to take my turn. Starting with the keyword “science”, you described it as a method of inquiry, as indeed it is—a method that admits as true only what can be ascertained by observation and experiment. But science is also the portrayal of the universe that the method of inquiry implants in our minds. Here is one version of that portrayal in your own words, as a young man coming to Plum Village for the first time.

I am a child of so-called “scientific thinking” and rationalism, by which I mean skepticism and logical positivism, and a belief that everything should be provable, definite, or at least falsifiable….I had been trained to see the world as made of matter, which was basically inert, indifferent, and soulless — just stuff, endlessly bouncing off other stuff, obeying so-called “physical laws,” eternally, deterministically churning all the stuff, producing different configurations of stuff, meaninglessly, until the eventual heat-death of the universe.

What you encountered at Plum Village took you beyond this scientific worldview to an incomparably better worldview. At least back then, you partitioned these two worldviews into something that you labeled “science” and “not-science”, with perhaps the umbrella term “spiritual” for “not-science.”

During our retreat, one of the other brothers expressed the same sentiment. We were sitting in a circle and he pointed to a tree root poking above the ground. He metaphorically compared the above-ground part of the root with scientific knowledge and everything below the ground — in other words, just about the whole tree root system — with spirituality.

This partitioning — between a limited, barren, and purposeless worldview portrayed by science and a limitless, fecund, and purposeful worldview portrayed by spirituality — is extremely common, in part for good reasons. Here is a passage written by Richard Dawkins, who is by far the most famous interpreter of Darwin’s theory of evolution for the general public.

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

If this is the portrayal of the universe that emerges from scientific inquiry, then spiritual seekers have every reason to search elsewhere! But now let’s consider another possibility — that despite the appearance of past decades, underwritten by authorities such as Dawkins, scientific inquiry does not lead to such a barren and purposeless worldview. Instead, it can affirm and extend the worldview that so many people feel they must go outside of science to find.

Suppose further that the kind of compassionate action inspired by Engaged Buddhism — to do something about climate change, for example — requires scientific inquiry. Those so-called physical laws, which you found so unfulfilling in some respects, are necessary to figure out how to mitigate climate change — and the universe that exists apart from how we think about it is unforgiving of the wrong answers!

This view of science, which makes sense of concepts such as “purpose,” “mindfulness,” and “right action,” and provides knowledge about the world that is required for compassionate action to be effective, can be regarded as a spiritual practice in its own right. This is my understanding of the fusion of our three keywords--spirituality, science, and action--which ProSocial World brought to its collaboration with Plum Village.

BPL: Now things become interesting! And perhaps we will have to agree to disagree about certain important nuances. You said “science is also the portrayal of the universe that the method of inquiry implants in our minds,” but I’m not sure that it has to be, or indeed that it should be. I think it is more prudent, and more metaphysically parsimonious to understand science as a method, and not to mistake it for the worldview that some believe it implies. I’m drawing a distinction between science and scientific materialism, which purports to present a true and accurate description of reality. Of course, it depends a bit on what you meant by “portrayal.” If you meant “incomplete and vastly simplified sketch with important elements necessarily missing,” then I’m with you; but if you meant something like “accurate and (nearly) complete description,” then I would have to disagree.

I don’t think that science has the power to give us this kind of portrayal of the universe at all. I think what science gives us (which is a lot!) is a kind of stick figure approximation; an abstract representation of certain aspects of reality (the measurable ones). This representation is very powerful, in that it can allow us to make predictions, design experiments to test those predictions, and on the basis of the results of those experiments adjust the theories that gave rise to our predictions in order to make better predictions. But taking the combined set of theories (ways of seeing) and predictions as an accurate, and most perniciously as a complete portrayal of reality is, to me, a mistake.

Further, I don’t agree that I partitioned the two worldviews as “science” and “not-science,” or “science” and “spirituality.” I think the distinction I saw then, and still see now, was between “scientific materialism,” or “scientism” (more on that later), and a vision of the world which is inclusive of, and recognizes the importance of science, whilst also recognizing its limits, and which includes a comfortable acceptance of the enduring presence of mystery as a fundamental aspect of experience.

I think you’re correct that for many scientists, there is a (mostly unexamined) reliance on a key assumption: that there is an objective reality shared by all observers. Further, many assume that the reliability and efficacy of certain scientific theories and their predictions confirm the existence of this objective external reality. This is what some understand to be a “scientific worldview.” But to me it is profoundly unscientific because the existence of this so-called “objective reality” cannot be demonstrated by appeal to evidence — it cannot be grounded by anything. It is an assumption, nothing more — and unfortunately it is rarely recognized as such by scientists, though there are distinguished exceptions.

The great physicist Max Planck said this: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness.” I don’t fully align with this statement because it is still tied up in dualism, but his observation that we “cannot get behind consciousness,” seems to me crucial. To claim that there is something independent of consciousness must at the very least be recognized as an assumption, and certainly not as something which has been proven by science (which many seem to think it is), let alone as empirical — indeed the very notion of empiricism, on which all experimental science is based, implies the presence of consciousness in the equation.

Here is Hume, that famous empiricist: “Although we have no ground for believing in an objective reality, we have also no choice but to act as if it is true.” He had the intellectual honesty and rigor to admit that the existence of an objective reality cannot be proved — something many modern scientists seem to have forgotten. And whilst I can agree with him on the first part of his statement, I think the second part is redundant: the existence of “objective reality” is not a necessary assumption for the purpose of doing good science. In fact, overlooking the fact that we are making ungrounded assumptions is likely to result in bad science. Neither am I convinced that to abandon such a worldview is to give in to “superstition” or to embrace a kind of “anything goes” attitude with respect to truth.

I remember this came up during the retreat, when you were quite surprised to discover that I did not agree with you about the existence of “objective reality,” and assumed that the only alternative to that was a kind of post-modernist “each to their own” attitude, according to which truth is arbitrary and can be determined by everyone for themselves. Nothing could be further from my position. I certainly don’t believe we get to “make up the rules” or decide for ourselves what is and isn’t true. But I also don’t believe that science is the only method at our disposal to determine truth. The idea that either one must adopt scientific materialism or else abandon all reason and embrace arbitrariness is a false dichotomy that has done and continues to do much damage. Iain McGilchrist in his extraordinary book “The Matter With Things,” has said this better than I ever can:

“In the last century or so, there has been a tendency, at least in popular discourse, to pull reality in opposing directions. Some scientists, whether they put it this way or not when they are asked to reflect, still carry on as if there just exists a Reality Out There (ROT), the nature of which is independent of any consciousness of it: naive realism. These are usually biologists; you won’t find many physicists who would think that. In reality, we participate in the knowing: there is no ‘view from nowhere’. Of crucial importance is that this fact does not in any way prevent science legitimately speaking of truths — far from it… We desperately need what science can tell us, and post-modern attempts to undermine it should be vigorously resisted. Two important truths, then: science cannot tell us everything; but what science can tell us is pure gold. Any attempt to suppress science, for whatever reason, is dangerous and wrong.

“Meanwhile, on the other hand, there are philosophers of the humanities who think that there is no such thing as reality, since it’s all Made Up Miraculously By Ourselves (MUMBO): naive idealism…

“These viewpoints are closer than they look. One party fears that if what we call reality were in any sense contaminated by our own involvement in bringing it about it would no longer worthy of being called real. The others fears that, since we manifestly do play a part in its coming about, it’s already the case that it can’t be called real. But just because we participate in reality doesn’t mean we invent it out of nowhere, or solipsistically project it on some inner mental screen; much less does it mean that the very idea of reality is thereby invalidated.

“I take it that there is something that is not just the contents of my mind — that, for example, you, my reader, exist. There is an infinitely vast, complex, multifaceted, whatever-it-is-that-exists-apart-from-ourselves. The one world that any of us can know, then, is what comes into being in the never-ending encounter between us and this whatever-it-is. What is more, I claim that both parties evolve and are changed through the encounter: it is how we and it become more fully what we are. The process is both reciprocal and creative. Think of it as like a true and close relationship between two conscious beings: neither is of course ‘made up’ by the other, but both are to some extent, perhaps to great extent, “made” what they are through their relationship.”

So I must insist on resisting your characterization of my position. I do not reject science, I question scientific materialism. I find the scientific method to be a powerful set of practices to develop and refine theories that allow us to understand important aspects of reality, particularly those aspects which can be measured, but which wholly neglects (and that is not a problem, as long as one is aware of it) other crucially important aspects of reality.

It seems that some scientists, and many non-scientists who consider themselves conversant with science, regularly conflate the scientific method with scientific materialism. Further, they tend to believe that science is gradually, and more and more convincingly revealing the true and complete nature of reality, and in so doing, confirming the truth of scientific materialism. I certainly would have been in that camp, aged 19, when I first visited Plum Village. And it’s of this type of scientific materialism that I started to see the limits following my visit. More than twenty years later, I believe science has access to some truths, and important ones, at that, but not all truths.

Letting go of my reliance on scientific materialism as a worldview certainly did not make me anti-science. In fact, I started to see that the worldview that science purported to give me was not really based on science at all, but on surmise and metaphysical prejudice. I started to see that I could be a scientist, in the sense of applying the scientific method, without having to espouse scientific materialism as a worldview.

Before going to Plum Village, I was convinced that everything was in principle explicable, and definable, and I wanted to subject whatever-spirituality-turned-out-to-be to this same pinning-down. I wanted to know exactly what it was. And I thought that that would solve all the issues. Instead, I came away with a dawning awareness of the limitations of language, definition, explication, and pinnable-downable-ness. Consequently, I had to adjust my understanding of the limits of science.

Up until that visit, I thought that everything, eventually, would be found to be within the remit of, and be explicable by science. As a result, I probably also thought that science was the sole arbiter of truth. And I think it’s true to say that I was searching for exactly what you are offering now, which is the affirmation by the science of the existence of purpose and meaning in the Universe, and for science to “make sense” of mindfulness and right action. Because to my mind then, if science said something was real, (like “purpose”) then it was real; and if science didn’t, or couldn’t say it was real, or couldn’t explain it, then it was unreliable and/or non-existent.

As a result of learning how to investigate the nature of my own experience (meditation), I was able to let go of the need for that affirmation by science. Now I am quite happy to recognize the presence of meaning and purpose in my life without needing science to tell me that they are real, or explain how they came to be. At the same time, I am fully in agreement with you that science has come a long way since the unfortunate proclamation by Dawkins that you cited (though he wasn’t the first, nor the last to make such proclamations). It was exactly the kind of apparent certainty exemplified by Dawkins that I struggled with as a teenager. Though I also wrestled with a possibly even bleaker statement made by Bertrand Russel in his book “A Free Man’s Worship”:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

Fortunately, as you point out, science is beginning to move beyond this position, but I think it can only do so convincingly if it is willing to abandon scientific materialism. There is no need for science to lay claim to every aspect of reality. To me, the best kind of scientist should be comfortable acknowledging the existence of important areas of knowledge to which science has no access. And there are many such scientists, for example, Peter Medawar, regarded as the “father of transplantation” for his work on graft rejection and the discovery of acquired immune intolerance, affirmed “the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer.” Or Karl Popper, who, in a speech celebrating Darwin’s legacy, said:

“It is important to realise that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions—about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world. This has often been well understood. But some great scientists, and many lesser ones, have misunderstood the situation. The fact that science cannot make any pronouncement about ethical principles has been misinterpreted as indicating that there are no such principles.”

Having said all that, I’m perfectly happy for science to inform me about the need for action to prevent catastrophic climate change, and for science to guide what that action should be. These are exactly the kinds of questions to which science is perfectly suited. I’m also very happy that the new science of multi-level selection theory can account for the emergence of prosocial traits in humans and I think this new science and the story it tells about who we are can be profoundly revitalizing for our society, and repair much of the harm done by Neo-Darwinism in the last decades. But I also believe it would be a mistake to reduce o ur capacity for love, or the deepest experiences of meaning and purpose to purely instrumental things. Just because they may have an instrumental aspect does not mean that that is all that they are.

So whilst I agree that science can play a necessary and important role in helping us to recognize how evolution has selected for prosocial traits, I don’t agree that this means that science has “explained” purpose, or love. The fact that we have identified a survival benefit for groups that know how to cooperate does not mean that there is therefore nothing mysterious about the experience of love, or that there is nothing beyond the instrumental and “selected for” aspect of kindness or generosity. To me, it is much more enlivening to admit the possibility that in my profound dedication to the alleviation of the suffering of all beings, there can be something beyond the rational, something wild and inexplicable, something logic cannot contain. Otherwise, how can we explain the feeling that even acts of kindness that have no instrumental outcome, that no one sees, and that are apparently extinguished, such as in the darkness of a concentration camp, are limitless, powerful, and change the shape of the Universe?

DSW: If we don’t watch out, we will be writing a book together! It is clear that this conversation needs to be the start of an ongoing dialogue, which includes others from both of our cultural traditions in addition to ourselves. Let’s do what we can to make that happen.

I agree with you about the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. Humility is definitely called for! We also agree upon the need to be careful about language, which can be both an enabler and a trap. What you mean by a given keyword or phrase, such as “scientific materialism” or “ultimate”, can be different from what others mean. Variation in word meaning can even be called an objective fact, begging for an explanation, a point to which I will return.

This is an opportunity to introduce the concepts of proximate and ultimate causation from evolutionary theory, knowing that they do not correspond exactly to your meaning of “scientific materialism” and “ultimate”, but that an exploration of the similarities and differences can be instructive. While the distinction will be well known to some of our readers, it will be new to others, so a basic tutorial is called for and I can keep it short.

Everything that evolves has a physical basis, which is called proximate causation. For example, if I ask the question “Why do plum flowers bloom in spring?”, I can answer in terms of biochemical mechanisms that are sensitive to temperature or photoperiod. But the same question has a second answer: Plum flowers actually vary in when they bloom. Those that bloom too early are nipped by frost. Those that bloom too late don’t have time to ripen their fruits. Most plum flowers bloom in spring because of the shaping influence of natural selection. This is called ultimate causation. The two terms were coined by the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr in the 1960s, but they are implicitly part of Darwin’s theory of evolution from the beginning.

Every trait that evolves has both a proximate and ultimate explanation, which are complementary and do not substitute for each other. What’s amazing, however, is the explanatory power of ultimate causation, without needing to know anything about the physical makeup of organisms. In this sense, ultimate causation goes beyond materialism.

For example, I can predict that many desert-living animals will be colored to match their backgrounds to avoid being detected by their predators or prey. I can make this prediction for snails, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals, even though they have different genes and physical exteriors. I can make the prediction no matter whether the color of the desert sand is white, black, or brown. The root fact that enables me to make such a robust prediction is heritable variation. Just as a clay sculpture can be explained mostly by the shaping influence of the artist, thanks to the malleability of clay, the properties of organisms can be explained largely on the basis of ultimate causation, thanks to the malleability of heritable variation.

Here is a second example that introduces a new element. Infanticide—the killing of infants by adults--exists throughout the animal world. An ounce of ultimate causation thinking enables us to predict the major environmental contexts for the evolution of infanticide, as surely as the color of desert-living animals: Lack of resources, poor offspring quality, and low genetic relatedness. These are indeed the “big three” environmental contexts for the evolution of infanticide in a broad range of animal species, from beetles to gorillas.

The new element of my second example is that infanticide is morally abhorrent in some human cultures, although it is normative in others and has been throughout human history. It is difficult to acknowledge that something morally abhorrent to us might also qualify as “natural”, but that is exactly what is called for, and it is here that Darwin’s theory of evolution begins to map nicely onto the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The First Noble Truth is that life is permeated by suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused largely by individuals attempting to satisfy their cravings at the expense of each other. The Darwinian version of these two truths is that natural selection often results in outcomes that pit individuals within a species or species in a multi-species ecosystem against each other. Evolution doesn’t make everything nice!

The Third Noble Truth is that a path exists to end suffering. The Darwinian version is that nature is not entirely red in tooth and claw. There is also love, cooperation, and everything else that we might wish for in an ideal human society — but only given certain environmental conditions.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the teachings of Buddhism as a path to end suffering, without claiming to be the only path. As you say, the Buddha was famously modest on this point, encouraging his disciples to experiment and not to blindly take anything on faith. The Darwinian version is to identify the specific environmental conditions that select for harmonious relations, just as we did for the evolution of coloration and infanticide. In the spirit of humility, I don’t insist that this would be the only path, or that it corresponds exactly to Buddhist paths. As pluralists, we can agree that all paths that end suffering are worth following and relating to each other.

It is here that the concept of organism becomes central and provides another bridge between Buddhism and evolutionary science. If you want to observe a world free of suffering, look inside any healthy organism. It is there that all parts work harmoniously for the benefit of the whole. This is why the metaphor of a human community as like a single organism has been a mainstay of spiritual, religious, and political thought throughout history—including Thay, who preferred thinking of Plum Village as an organism and not merely an organization. If Darwin’s theory of evolution can say something about how organisms evolve from elements that previously inflicted suffering on each other, then spiritual thinkers might want to know about it!

Now I will return to variation in the meaning of words and language as both enabling and a trap. This is a theme that runs throughout our conversation, starting with your very first point that language has inherent limitations. The Darwinian version is that our symbolic meaning systems are the cultural equivalent of our genes.

Organisms exist in environments. Their genes don’t directly represent their environments. Instead, their genes result in traits that are enacted in their environments--and the winnowing process of selection results in traits that enhance survival and reproduction in those environments.

Now imagine that the ways we think and talk about the world are like our genes in this respect. They don’t correspond directly to “what’s out there” (our environments), at least not necessarily. Instead, they result in actions that are enacted in what’s out there. And the winnowing process of selection results in actions that, for the most part, help us to survive and reproduce in what’s out there.

This is called Dual Inheritance Theory and, in my opinion, it maps beautifully onto what you have been saying from your Engaged Buddhism perspective. Dual Inheritance Theory acknowledges that there is a world out there, which exists apart from how we think and talk about it. We both agree that to claim otherwise results in a form of madness that Iain McGilchrist amusingly called MUMBO in the passage that you quoted. But there is also a diversity of socially constructed meaning systems that inhabit the world that’s “out there”—a cultural tree of life comparable the biological tree of life, which the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere (go here for a comprehensive series of videos on the noosphere from an evolutionary perspective). This does justice to your emphasis that science is not the sole arbiter of truth. Indeed, a well-adapted meaning system is often far superior to current scientific knowledge in the kind of wisdom that is required to survive and reproduce in the particular environment that gave rise to it.

An example is the Water Temple System of Bali, which has been studied by the anthropologist and complex systems thinker Steve Lansing. It is a religious system that evolved to orchestrate rice agriculture, including maintaining an elaborate irrigation system and managing a tradeoff between water use and pest control. Western development agencies had no clue about its utilitarian function and wisdom when they imposed their own science-based “green revolution” agricultural practices, only to have them fail. A more respectful attitude toward indigenous knowledge was definitely called for!

I’ve been studying the utilitarian nature of religions for over two decades, including a random sample of religions that included Jainism and several varieties of Buddhism. Religions don’t hang around very long if they don’t result in strong communities of believers. From a cultural evolutionary perspective, to not understand the utilitarian nature of religion is not to understand the nature of religion at all. This is what Emile Durkheim meant when he centered his analysis of religion on what he called “secular utility”.

This view of meaning systems as cultural lifeforms adapted to particular environments also reveals their inherent limitations. First, they frequently include counterfactual beliefs that obscure or deny observable reality. Second, culturally evolved meaning systems often adapt people to act at cross-purposes to each other, illustrating the first and second Noble Truths. Third, when removed from the context of the environments that gave rise to them, they become maladaptive for everyone, like the proverbial fish out of water.

If we were writing a book together, I would want to devote several chapters to the history of religious movements, including the 2500-year history of Buddhism and the approximately 60-year history of Thay’s Engaged Buddhism movement, starting during the Vietnam War and leading up to the present. It would be fascinating to know how it arose in his mind and spread—or failed to spread—in competition with other cultural life forms. Think of the hundreds of lay Sanghas inspired by Thay, some growing and giving rise to other Sanghas, while others shrink and wink out of existence. Interpreting all of this from a cultural evolutionary perspective might add a lot of insight—even for those who have lived it.

To keep this conversation within bounds, I’d like to focus on how a given meaning system should be studied as a cultural lifeform and how different meaning systems should interact with each other in the present moment. Let’s begin with Richard Dawkins and Bertrand Russell. We have quoted them as portraying an exceptionally bleak view of the world, but that’s not quite right. Both are heroes of the secular humanism movement and a sympathetic reading of their meaning system shows it to be inspiring in its own way. Judged by his actions, Bertrand Russell rivals Thay and Martin Luther King in his commitment to social justice and world peace.

Or let’s take Christianity, whose inspirational mainspring is the belief in everlasting life. This is different than Buddhist beliefs, but it is only to be expected that historically distinct religious traditions will develop separate motivational narratives. In their different ways, both meaning systems provided a social glue for holding societies together at a larger scale than before—often in the context of harmful competition at still larger scales. The history of Buddhism in Tibet, for example, took place against the background of constant warfare at various scales and for the most part never questioned the axioms of the feudal society of which it was a part.

What this means for current-day interactions is that whenever we talk with another person, we should not assume that they share exactly the same cultural DNA as us. We should attempt to understand their way of looking at the world, how it inspires or fails to inspire them, and how it causes them to act. This is like learning to become bilingual, except in this case the same words are being spoken (e.g, we’re both speaking English) and the linguistic differences are the meanings attached to the words. After we come to a mutual understanding of what we mean by our words, only then can we begin to work together to alleviate suffering.

That’s what this conversation is about, which attempts to create a translation manual between Engaged Buddhism and modern evolutionary science. My proposition to you is that when the concepts of proximate and ultimate causation are taken together, they go beyond what you mean by scientific materialism in ways that map nicely onto what you regard as a more “ultimate” and enlightened view. The passage that you quote from Iain McGilchrist, for example, is entirely consistent my evolutionary worldview, as far as I can see.

There is one more major topic that we need to cover, but first I am eager for your reflections on the translation manual that I have tried to provide!

BPL: I agree that it’s important to be aware of differences in our cultural DNA in order to avoid misunderstanding, and I’m also very happy to be exploring with you the possibilities of a translation manual as you suggested, but in the art of translation it’s crucial to recognize that some concepts are not shared and cannot be mapped, and that is even more true when we are talking about non-conceptual experience. I agree with you that the passage I quoted from Iain McGilchrist is consistent with your evolutionary worldview, but that does not mean it is equivalent. I also notice that you did not engage with the first part of the passage I quoted, in which he refers to naive realism or the belief in ROT (reality out there).

There is always a risk when we are speaking from fundamentally different paradigms, of trying to reduce the other position to our own. As a case in point, it is very common for those who are committed to the belief in ROT to “explain” religion as a purely utilitarian phenomenon, and not to notice that they are playing the “my paradigm is bigger than yours” game. I myself tended to do the same thing as a teenager — it’s not difficult to recast all religions as means of ensuring social cohesion without engaging with the possibility that the more than material phenomena they allude to may actually be real. There is a great risk of a kind of cultural superiority that comes with analyzing the practices and beliefs of other cultures and “explaining” them in terms of the scientific materialist worldview.

For example, you referred to the Water Temple System of Bali as “a religious system that evolved to orchestrate rice agriculture,” thereby reducing it to something purely instrumental. The fact that something has an instrumental outcome does not mean that that is what it is. You went on to say that “to not understand the utilitarian nature of religion is not to understand the nature of religion at all.” I would respond by saying that to reduce religion solely to its utilitarian aspect is not to understand the nature of religion at all. It’s clear that religions generally have a utilitarian component in terms of promoting social integration and solidarity, but to say that that is all they are is one of the least appealing aspects of Durkheim’s thought. His attitude is emblematic of the way in which scientific materialism can make us blind to the existence of vast realms of experience — it’s a kind of fundamental cultural arrogance we are often guilty of, with our unconscious Western-scientific bias, that says “I can explain your beliefs and practices back to you in my own terms.”

There is at times an assumption in certain segments of the scientific community that anything that cannot be explained in the language of scientific materialism is a priori not real. Coming from that position we can be amazed by the efficacy of the Water Temple System of Bali, whilst being comfortable in the certainty of our rational “understanding” that the blessings and shrines are not really doing anything other than managing human behavior. From the position of scientific materialism, there is no possibility that the blessing could actually be interacting with the water in any way, or that water itself may be more than “mere matter,” or that the water could actually be spirit, or sacred, in a way that transcends the Cartesian split in our Western intellectual inheritance.

This is why I would advocate extreme caution and humility in the exercise of translation between different systems of thought, and going further, I would point out that there is an impossibility of translation when we are dealing on one side with a system of thought (science), and a practice of non-thinking (Zen). Buddhism, and especially Engaged Buddhism, certainly has a utilitarian and socially efficacious component, but that is not all that they are. This is why I have to come back to my insistence on the importance of that which cannot be said. If you can’t say it, how can you translate it? The danger inherent in scientific materialism is that it tends to want to explain everything in its own terms.

Science is great — I love science and will always consider myself to some extent a scientist, but science only has access to a small part of reality. I fully embrace the study of religions as cultural symbotypes which evolve over time, but that is only to look at the aspect of religion which can be spoken — for example the rules and observances — and overlooks what the system of rules and observances is actually trying to help us to be in touch with, which is direct experience, beyond thought, beyond the rational, and fundamentally unsayable.

As far as trying to draw a parallel between ultimate causation and the ultimate dimension in Buddhism I think it is probably a mistake — the fact that both happen to use the same word is misleading. Ultimate causation, as you explained so well, refers to the action of natural selection and genetic drift over generations to shape the evolution of specific traits, which is a beautiful and extraordinarily powerful explanatory tool; whereas the Ultimate Dimension refers to the possibility of the experience of oneness with all that is, of transcendence of the notion of ourself as a separate self — it is an expression we use to refer to an experience that leaves us speechless, profoundly at peace, and about which we must remain mostly silent.

DSW: Thanks for your frank appraisal of my attempt at a translation manual. As a next step, we really must open up our conversation to others! For the final segment of our conversation, I want to focus on the last of our three keywords—action. What can we do to increase compassionate action in the world? One approach is to perform inner psychological work. If we can get people to think and feel more compassionately, then presumably they will act more compassionately.

This might seem like sound reasoning, but it ignores a major limiting factor. Often, when we do act compassionately, we place ourselves at a disadvantage compared to others who accept benefits without reciprocating (free-riding) or who actively exploit the kindness of others (predatory behaviors). Compassionate action might be in short supply, not because people lack motivation, but because they are wisely protecting themselves from harm.

It follows that increasing compassionate action in the world requires both inner psychological work and outer sociological work. We must create social environments that make it safe to be compassionate. Otherwise, we can harm someone by counseling them to act compassionately, no matter how pure our intentions.

In my experience, this simple fact is well understood in some contexts and egregiously ignored in others. One aphorism attributed to Bertrand Russell is “Love is wise. Hatred is foolish”. This statement is itself foolish for utterly ignoring the importance of context. A wiser statement might be: “Creating protective environments for love is wise. Leaving love open to depredation is foolish”. It doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, but it is far better advice!

Much as I admire H.H. Dalai Lama, he often commits the same error by claiming that compassionate actors benefit themselves along with others. This is indeed true in certain contexts and well supported by scientific research, but to suggest that compassionate action is always or even usually a win-win situation obscures its inherent vulnerability. People hate it when their prosocial efforts go unrecognized, as well they should. Prolonged helping often leads to burnout. Unless social environments are constructed so that givers also get, then giving will decline in frequency and disappear, as surely as water draining from a bathtub. That’s what it means to be living in a Darwinian world.

My impression is that Buddhism, as practiced in the west, pays far more attention to inner psychological work than outer sociological work. This is also true for the science that has been applied to Buddhism by organizations such as the Mind and Life Institute, which is overwhelmingly the science of the mind. But the 2500-year-old tradition of Buddhism and Thay’s form of engaged Buddhism is a different matter. Here is what Thay himself has to say in his book Interbeing:

“In modern Christianity, one finds the ideas of vertical theology and horizontal theology. Spiritual life is the vertical dimension of getting in touch with God, while social life is the horizontal dimension of getting in touch with humans. In Buddhism, there have been persons who also think in these terms. They speak about the above level of practicing the Buddha’s Way and the below level of helping living beings. However, this understanding does not accord with the true spirit of Buddhism, which teaches that Buddhahood or the nature of enlightenment is innate to every being and not a transcendental identity. Thus, in Buddhism the vertical and horizontal are one. If one penetrates the horizontal, one finds the vertical, and vice versa. This is the meaning of “to be in touch with.”

The distinction that Thay is making between Buddhism and Christianity should not obscure what they have in common, which is strength along both the inner psychological (=vertical) and outer sociological (=horizontal) dimensions. Historically, religions don’t persist very long if they don’t provide a set of enforceable rules orchestrating person-to-person interactions, to go along with the intense psychological motivation to serve the common good. In John Calvin’s form of Christian Protestantism, which I have studied closely, the sociological dimension was spelled out in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances. In the Christian Benedictine monastic order, the sociological dimension was spelled out in the document that became known as the Benedictine Rule. And Thay has spelled out the sociological dimension of monastic life from an Engaged Buddhism perspective in his 2004 book Freedom Wherever We Go: A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-First Century.

I did not discover this book until the end of our week-long retreat at Plum Village. In my own talks at the retreat, I stressed the need for both dimensions and introduced ProSocial World’s version of the sociological dimension, which is based on the work of the political scientist Elinor Ostrom. Hearing Brother Chan Phap Huu (the Abbott of the upper Hamlet) and Sister Chan Hien Nghiem (one of the Senior Sisters of Plum Village) compare Ostrom’s “Core Design Principles (CDPs)” to the independently derived design principles governing Plum Village was one of the high points of the retreat for me. Now I could learn even more about the sociological dimension of Plum Village from Thay himself through his book!

Reading the book affirmed my impression that, while all religions are products of cultural evolution, Buddhism comes closest to actually describing itself as a process of cultural evolution. The body of rules and regulations governing monastic life is called the Vinaya. They were not handed down by decree but accumulated on the basis of their utility:

“In Buddhism, the Buddha is not considered a god or a lawmaker; he did not have a blueprint of the precepts. Instead, the precepts evolved in relation to the needs and aspirations of the dynamic and living community that surrounded the Buddha” (p. 13).

As for the origin of Buddhism, so also for adapting Buddhism to modern times. In the following passage, Thay demonstrates an awareness of evolutionary mismatch.

“Buddhism should remain a living tradition. Like a tree, the dead branches need to be pruned in order for new shoots to grow. The new shoots are the teachings and practices that respond to the needs of our present time and culture Technological developments, mass media, and the speed of modern life have all influenced the life of monastic communities. Degradation of the monastic lifestyle is evident in places all over the world, in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities. To respond to the present situation, a revised Pratimoksha (basic book of training for monastics) is urgently needed” (p. ix).

The revised Pratimoksha described in the book is not just Thay’s vision but the result of a deliberative process:

“In our effort to make the Revised Pratimoksha as relevant and responsive as possible, the Dharma Teacher Council of Plum Village has consulted extensively with Vinaya teachers and other monks and nuns in Vietnam and elsewhere over the past five years. In addition, we have drawn upon our experience of monastic life in the West over the past two decades. Therefore, the Revised Pratimoksha aims to offer guidance and supportive to contemporary Buddhist monastics living in both Asia and in the West” (p. ix).

If we were writing a book together, I would want to spend a whole chapter on the amazingly elaborated outer dimension of Plum Village and how they map onto the core design principles (CDPs) of Elinor Ostrom. Not only is there a very strong identity and purpose (CDP1), but appropriate behaviors are spelled out in great detail and it is nearly impossible to free-ride on the efforts of others (CDP2). Decision-making is highly inclusive (CDP3). Agreed-upon behaviors are closely monitored (CDP4) and there is a highly evolved graduated response to deviant behavior (CDP5). A section titled “Seven Ways of Putting an End to Disputes” maps onto Ostrom’s sixth CDP, identifying the need for fast and fair conflict resolution mechanisms. Appropriate autonomy is granted to groups within Plum Village (CDP7) and the governance structure extends to interactions among groups (CDP8).

Once again, we have a strong alignment between the Engaged Buddhism tradition of Plum Village and the science-based approach of ProSocial World. In both cases, the essential points might be described this way:

  • The welfare of the whole planetary system must be the target of our efforts.
  • There is very little that an individual can do on his or her own. Effective action requires working in groups.
  • Relatively small groups, whose members and known and accountable to each other, are a fundamental unit of human society. They were they only units in our distant past and need to remain as “cells” of “multicellular” society organisms.
  • At all scales, groups must be strong in two dimensions, described variously as “inner” and “outer”, “vertical” and “horizontal”, or “psychological” and “sociological”.
  • Positive change is inherently experimental. We don’t know exactly what will work. We must make our most educated guesses, see what happens, retain what seems to work, and iterate the process again and again. In other words, we must be agents of conscious cultural evolution.
  • Even when we are speaking the same language, such as English or Vietnamese, we are speaking different languages when we attach different meanings to the same words. We must learn to become multi-lingual before we can work together to achieve shared goals.

Here is a summary of what I have tried to accomplish in my part of this conversation. I have tried to show that evolutionary science, with its combination of proximate and ultimate causation, goes beyond what you mean by scientific materialism in ways that enlighten core elements of Buddhism as an ancient tradition and Engaged Buddhism as one of its most vibrant current branches. By “enlighten”, I mean “shed additional light on current understanding”. Core elements that can be enlightened include the Four Noble Truths, the concept of society as an organism, multiple lifeforms of wisdom, language as both an enabler and a trap, and the need for a meaning system to be strong along two dimensions.

Likewise, Buddhism can greatly enlighten an evolutionary scientist’s understanding of human cultural evolution at both the macro scale spanning millennia and the micro-scale spanning the 60-year history of Engaged Buddhism. Plum Village truly qualifies as an organism, not just an organization, and I feel privileged to have been welcomed as an observer.

If there is a residual disagreement between us, it might concern the aesthetics of utility. For me, if something proves to be useful, it becomes more beautiful, not less. At times, you seem to yearn for something “wild and inexplicable”, “something logic cannot contain”, which has “no instrumental outcome”. On these points, I will mischievously claim to have Thay on my side! His effort to revise the Pratimoksha was relentlessly utilitarian. If a precept served “the needs and aspirations of the dynamic and living community”, it was retained. Otherwise, it was treated as “a dead branch that needs to be pruned so that new shoots can grow”. I submit that this utilitarian stance is what we need to consciously evolve a world that works for all.

While we might not be fully aligned on our three key words--spirituality, science, and action--I do think that we have made solid progress in that direction. What excites me most is the prospect of acting together in the future to bring about “a real awakening, a real enlightenment”, which Thay calls for at the end of the documentary that commemorates his life.

BPL: I am definitely on board with bringing about “a real awakening,” and it’s wonderful to be engaged in that grand project together with you. I’m very glad that through the practice of this dialogue, we have been able to explore the meaning of science, spirituality, and action so deeply, but as you mentioned, some differences in our understanding will remain. And I apologize if my insistence on the existence of the more than utilitarian has given the impression that I find the recognition of something’s utility to make it less beautiful. That is certainly not what I meant. My position is more of a “yes, and…” Buddhism is utilitarian up to a point, and your example of Thay’s discussion of the Vinaya is a good example of this — indeed Thay made a detailed comparison of Buddhist ethics and utilitarianism during a retreat in 2009 — but Buddhism also goes beyond utilitarianism in its removal of the notion of a separate self. If there is no self, then we must ask “useful for whom?”

Indeed, your discussion of compassion is, to me, an example of the limitations of the utilitarian outlook. You referred to Bertrand Russell’s “love is wise” statement as foolish, and pointed out what you consider to be H.H. the Dalai Lama’s error in overlooking what you describe as the inherent vulnerability of compassionate action. You went on to say that people hate it when their prosocial efforts go unrecognized. I would say that many people hate it when their prosocial efforts go unrecognized, and indeed, many people would be concerned about whether their compassionate action would put them in a situation of vulnerability, but not all. If we are able to release the notion of our separateness, then we can go far beyond the need for our actions to be recognized or rewarded, or the concern for our own personal safety or security.

And it is clear that many such truly selfless people have profoundly influenced the course of history. In fact, the training in releasing the notion of a separate self is the training of unlimited compassion. If we are tied to the notion of a separate self then our compassion will always be limited, in exactly the ways that you described — and that is also fine! And that is why it’s also very important to do exactly as you say — we do need to create safe contexts for people to practice compassion, because we know that many, perhaps most, will not be releasing the notion of separateness any time soon. That is why the CDPs are so important and can help us so much in bringing about a more beautiful and just world.

But I believe there is something more, something that is innate in all of us, which Thay refers to in the passage you quoted as our “nature of enlightenment,” and it is this part of us that knows that an act of kindness, an act of love, even if it goes unseen, or is apparently extinguished by hatred and injustice, is actually indestructible, eternal, and cannot be measured. Unconditional love is something real. When we are in touch with this deep knowledge, we are not concerned with recognition or reward, and I know of many who have been utterly fearless, even in the face of certain death — this goes beyond what can be explained in purely utilitarian terms, and that is not to reject utilitarianism but to recognize that it has a limited domain of applicability.

Utilitarianism is very useful, but it cannot account for all that we are. I agree that we need utilitarianism to “consciously evolve a world that works for all,” but utilitarianism alone will not be sufficient. This is my “yes, and…” — by recognizing the limits of utilitarianism, we understand the need to let go of our notions and ideas, thereby crossing into the domain of spirituality, which can work alongside, but must not be reduced to utilitarianism. If the spiritual is reduced to the utilitarian, it is less than the spiritual. I believe a good scientist, and a good meditator, must have a little of the mystic in them because, without that, we are not truly open to the possibility of experience beyond what we can describe or explain. And without that profound openness, we remain in the domain of the known, and cannot progress on our path of understanding and discovery.

This stance can also make us fearless. You said that “unless social environments are constructed so that givers also get, then giving will decline in frequency and disappear, as surely as water draining from a bathtub. That’s what it means to be living in a Darwinian world.” And here, again, I must disagree. Love will never disappear — it is inextinguishable and pervades all things — though I cannot explain exactly what that means or how I know it, and I take a risk by introducing such a statement into this kind of discussion. And yet it is this deep certainty in me that tells me we are not living in a purely Darwinian world.

It is only by releasing all notions, and learning to “dwell in the Ultimate,” or “rest in God” (these are just words, and we must beware of words, perhaps, especially words like God) that we can allow the collective awakening that Thay speaks of to manifest. Our attachment and certainty with regard to scientific materialism as a true and complete description of reality may be one of the greatest obstacles to the occurrence of a true collective awakening. As Shakespeare reminded us through the character of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and Earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” If we can’t recognize that our way of seeing is automatically erasing vast areas of experience by its claim to already know, to describe, and be able to explain what is real, then well… there is much that we will never see.

To conclude, please allow me to express my deep gratitude for the work that you are doing to enrich and update our understanding of evolutionary theory, and to bring about “a world that works for all.” This is an exciting time to be alive, and I’m certain that the work of ProSocial World and the promulgation of Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles will help many organizations to make vast leaps in their ability to allow trust and altruism to flourish, and ultimately will help the whole of humanity to evolve, and thus reach a new stage of cultural development. I also want to thank you for your deep commitment to this interaction and discussion, as well as the quality of openness that has allowed for this profound exchange and growing mutual understanding — I look forward to more!