Is Buddhism Religion or Science:
Two Case Studies of the Polemics on Buddhism as an Intellectual Endeavor

Lixin Zheng

This essay uses the analysis from Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion and compares two texts that delineate Buddhism as an intellectual endeavor as compared to religion, philosophy, and science, and argues that although the polemics around whether Buddhism could be appreciated fully through Western categories is seemingly a contemporary problem, it actually has a longer genealogy that has manifested itself differently in various cultural contexts. I first examine the article “Buddhism is neither religion nor philosophy but needed in today’s world” 佛法非宗教非哲學而為今時所必須 by Chinese Buddhist Ouyang Jian 歐陽漸 published in 1932. During the 1930s when Western hegemony was still undergoing intensive negotiation in China, Ouyang’s article tries to carve an intellectual space for Buddhism. However, in order to secure Buddhism’s place alongside religion and philosophy and rectify that “Buddhism is Buddhism by itself” (“佛法就稱佛法”), Ouyang is urged to explain Buddhism within the Western conceptual framework. Secondly, I examine The Tao of Physics published in 1975 by former physicist Fritjof Capra, which compares the relationship between the so-called “Eastern mystics” and modern quantum physics. Under the hegemonic discourse of the perennial philosophy, which aims at revealing a divine reality shared by all human beings, Capra portrays many systems of thought from the East, including Buddhism, as all sharing similarities with quantum mechanics, which he takes as authoritative. By examining these two examples, which both put Buddhism in close dialogue with Western categories of religion, philosophy, and science, I explore the historical discourse which conditions the ground on which we talk about Buddhism as an intellectual endeavor: what forces are at play behind the discourse, and how the question itself changes in different places and times? What is at stake is whether Buddhist scholars and practitioners today can find new ways to construct Buddhism as an alternative within the Western hegemony in the global context, instead of being stranded in the justification that “Buddhism is religion/philosophy/science.”

Key words: Buddhism, Religion, Science, Translation