Video for streaming available! John D. Dunne: "Buddhist Science as Skill in Means"

John Dunne


His Holiness the Dalai Lama has promoted the notion of “Buddhist Science” in recent years, and he has even organized a series of recent publications around that theme. From the perspective of cultural historians such as Donald Lopez, however, the term “Buddhist Science” reflects a strategy of accommodation with modernity and resistance to colonization that, beginning in the 19th century, eventually leads to the form of “Buddhist exceptionalism” that Evan Thompson has recently critiqued. Even these critics, however, acknowledge that it is not completely absurd to argue for “scientific” aspects of Buddhism. This presentation will focus initially on the ways that one can indeed argue for such features, specifically in relation to the emphasis on empiricism and objective knowledge that we find in the Buddhist epistemological tradition. We will then see how certain lacunae in the most seemingly scientific Buddhist sources suggest that Buddhist traditions lack the resources to produce the kind of knowledge that is usually associated with the scientific method. Exploring this issue more deeply, we will see that a sustained critique of objectivism, along with divergent goals for the production of knowledge, can help us to understand why the notion of “Buddhist science” might best be understood as a useful ploy or “skill in means” whose ultimate truth must be abandoned. 

JOHN D. DUNNE  (PhD 1999, Harvard University) serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he holds the Distinguished Chair in Contemplative Humanities at the Center for Healthy Minds.  He also holds a co-appointment in the Department of Asian Languages & Cultures, where he currently serves as departmental chair. Previously he was an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University, where he co-founded the Collaborative for Contemplative Studies.

Dunne's work focuses on Buddhist philosophy and contemplative practice, especially in dialog with Cognitive Science and Psychology. His publications appear in venues ranging across both the Humanities and the Sciences, and they include works on Buddhist philosophy, contemplative practices and their empirical examination and interpretation within scientific contexts. His current research focuses especially on core features—such as meta-awareness and dereification—that are found in numerous styles of contemplation.  

Dunne speaks in both academic and public contexts, and he occasionally teaches for Buddhist communities. In addition to serving as a faculty member for the Center for Healthy Minds, he is a Fellow of the Mind and Life Institute, where he has previously served on the Board of Directors, and he is an academic advisor to the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu, Nepal.

This talk is part of the Buddhism and Science Series

This series explores the many facets of the encounter between Buddhism and science through discussion and debate of relevant scientific papers, traditional Buddhist literature, science and technology studies (STS), and anthropological literature.