Buddhist Biology: HONORS 397
We'll all read a book, titled - not coincidentally, Buddhist Biology - recently written by David Barash and just published by Oxford University Press. Each week, we'll discuss material covered in various chapters, leading (one might hope) to a deeper understanding of Buddhism and of biology, and of the convergences between the two. A deep knowledge of neither Buddhism nor biology is required, since the book itself is intended for a general non-specialist audience. What is necessary, however, is interest and a willingness to talk about the important and stimulating ideas in question. No written papers or exams will be involved; this will simply be an opportunity to agree, disagree, point out weaknesses or strengths in the book, and possibly expand your understanding.
When I saw this class on the course listing, I knew I had to take it. It seemed right up my alley. What's a more romantic ideal that the enlightenment and nirvana promised by Buddhism, and in a biological context no less? There's this enchanting aspect to Buddhism that no other way of life (in lieu of calling it a religion) quite possesses, just because of its harmonious sensibilities.
The class initially, however, disappointed me. Professor Barash's book does a really wonderful job laying out the basic tenets of Buddhism, and then tying them to biology. However, I didn't find this concept of Buddhist Biology as radically mind shattering as I thought it would be. If anything, I found that the claim that there exists parallels between Buddhism and biology to be one that seemed like common sense, something that we all knew to be true even if we didn't always acknowledge it. My disappointment - I think - was predicated by the fact that throughout the course of my life, even if I hadn't studied Buddhism, I was still aware of its principles. Actually, it was the kids cartoon "Avatar: the Last Airbender" that gave me a pretty thorough grounding in the idea of interconnectedness and impermanence. On top of that, three years in the Honors program had made mindfulness second nature to me.
As it turned out, however, the enlightenment I found was actually a step beyond what I had assumed it would be about. I thought to myself one day, "Okay, you've accepted all this stuff to be true, you really buy into the whole concept. So what?" And it was that question that sparked a change for me. I had been content to sit with knowledge and not do anything with it, when I really should have taken the next step with it. The next step was applying my knowledge, seeing how I could alter my own life and mold it to these principles that I respected.
This kind of reflects the fact that the seminar was really concerned more with Buddhism than it was with Buddhist Biology. Our discussions often were mostly about issues of morality with how Buddhism functions as a way of life. This wasn't a bad thing. I think the analogy that Buddhism and Biology share parallels is a wonderful notion to entertain and consider (we spent the first class just talking about why we should talk about it, and we agreed that "mindfulness" is something everyone should have), but this analogy can only be discussed to a certain extent before it starts becoming not about how Buddhism and Biology are similar but stretching the facts to try and find how Buddhism and Biology are one and the same (it's an issue I had with Professor Barash's book on several occasions). I think Biology and Buddhism share many sensibilities which is why these parallels exist, but to say that karma is the equivalent of genes seems fallacious to me. I think it kind of defeats the point, like we're trying to fit Buddhism and Biology together when really we should be respecting each discipline on its own. It is our ability to respect each separately but allow our actions and thoughts to be guided by both that provide a more mindful experience.
I can't claim to have reached a state of nirvana, but I can say that I consider myself a Buddhist Biologist.