Buddhism and Science: A Relation

17 May 2019, Kathmnadu

There can be no question that Buddhism is the one system, excepting perhaps science itself, which achieves an objective and detached view toward the nature and destiny of man. This striking objectivity divorces the Buddhist system from the realm of religion and allies it at once with the kind of scientific search for truth which characterized India in the Gupta and other early periods of its civilization and which affords a major preoccupation to most of the intellectual world—both east and west—of today. Buddhism, this writer contends, is not properly a religion; it is a system for life and living in a world which is circumscribed with difficulty and beset with suffering.

Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible, and Buddhism has entered into the science and religion dialogue. The case is made that the philosophic and psychological teachings within Buddhism share commonalities with modern scientific and philosophic thought. For example, Buddhism encourages the impartial investigation of Nature (an activity referred to as Dhamma-Vicaya in the Pali Canon) –the principal object of study being oneself. Some popular conceptions of Buddhism connect it to discourse regarding evolutionquantum theory, and cosmology, though most scientists see a separation between the religious and metaphysical statements of Buddhism and the methodology of science. In 1993 a model deduced from Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development was published arguing that Buddhism is a fourth mode of thought[3] beyond magic, science and religion.

Buddhism is not a religion, if, in scientific terms, we define religion as the mystic experience, the psychic thrill. It is not a religion because it de-emphasizes faith in the unknown and unknowable and it rejects dogmatism. However much these latter features may obtrude themselves in Buddhist lands, no serious student can regard them as other than superfluous growths, digressions from the scientifically conceived Dharma of the founder. This paper holds that in the strictest sense, Buddhism as a system and scientific endeavour as a comparable system are one.

But there is also a difference: the Buddhist thinker is clear as to his aims; if he uses science and its methods, he does so with the realization that science is a means to an end and not an end in itself. In other words, the Buddhist sees in science reflections of principles expressed and reiterated by the Lord Buddha at a time when there was no absolute methodology of science as such. Since today the world is wedded to the methods of science, we have only to note how wholly compatible with science is the system founded in India over 2,500 years ago. Modern scientific achievement serves merely to lend added perspective to the concepts of impermanence, of the illusory quality, and of anatta which were put forth so long ago. As an end in itself, science may solve immediate problems; it feeds more people so that there are more people to feed; it prolongs life and finds more effective means of destroying life.

Science as viewed today, is a method, no more, and to make a cult of it, to find in it the answer to problems and questions of the ultimate forms of human destiny is rank error. It is making a dogma of science where no religious emotion or attitude is ever intended. This indeed was the fallacy of some of the sectarian forms of ancient Hinduism: in seeking to explain the universe by means of an atomic theory, however correctly conceived, the Brahmins of India of the past stopped dead and found human salvation, if such it may be called, in science and sciencing. Nor is the contemporary world too different despite the fact that the scientific goal is material rather than spiritual. The method of science admits primarily the formulation of an hypothesis; the testing of that hypothesis, and the stating of new hypothesis, predicated on knowledge obtained by such experimentation. The Lord Buddha experimented with ideas, not with things—he employed the crucible of life in which to measure human experience and he came up with a detached and tested answer.

Science is characterized by its tough-mindedness. The search for truth is not always easy, nor indeed, always pleasant. It has been said that the truth may hurt. It does, but it remains truth for all that. Pristine Buddhism offers an attempt, a successful one, it may be added, to come to grips with truth in an objective way. To those of us who, now living, are seeking a few moments of respite, of surcease from worry, in short, what might be called happiness, the Buddha says in effect: “All right, just remember, it doesn’t last; it may be here today but it is never permanent.” Just as science seeks to define its answers, objectively, without emotion, so also does Buddhism hit squarely at the target and, free from emotional stress, informs us concisely what is what. We may not like it and we may have to toughen ourselves to take it, but it is proven.

An example of the kind of scientific “tough-mindedness” which the Buddhist has to take is seen in the concept of kamma. What indeed could be simpler and yet what could be more -scientifically conceived? If one chooses, one may take on faith, to be sure, the samsara principle. Objectively, however, previous existences, however envisioned in time or space, remain a matter of complete indifference. What is significant is that “I” am not the same individual that “I” was yesterday, a year ago, or even a moment ago. Ego has changed, physical form has changed, however imperceptibly. Moreover, the “I” of the individual, having volition, free will, can and does act. Acts, however, are pre-conditioned by foregoing acts. A deed of to-day begets its effects of tomorrow, effects of future action and thought. To the view of this writer, this is the karmic principle with meaning and application. It is scientific; there is nothing esoteric about it.

So much has been said regarding the relations between Buddhism and the natural sciences that it is scarcely worth belabouring the point further here. The nature of matter, the nature of physical reality, problems of space and time are all implicit in Buddhist teachings. This writer must confess that he cannot care less about such mystical relationships as are conceived as between mind and matter. His interests lie in the connections between Buddhism and the social sciences, that wide area which seeks to understand the relation between man and man, not that between atom and unpopulated universe.

In such social sciences as anthropology and sociology, an attempt is made to understand how men behave in groups and why they act as they do. A related aspect is seen in economics and in its handmaiden, political science. Still further, may be added, the discipline which seeks to evaluate the individual, psychology. In all of these fields, one thought becomes paramount: human beings act because of their conditioning; the anthropologist would say because of their cultural heritage. We come to realize that what one people regards as right, another may view as wholly wrong. The social sciences teach the relativism of human behaviour.

Granted that human behaviour be relative, it follows that there are no absolutes of good or evil. Indeed, good and evil, as concepts, are likewise wholly relative. As a trained social scientist, one who has information regarding the differing ways of the peoples of the world, the writer believes this. Only in Buddhism is some order restored from the resulting chaos. Note that the Buddha does not say: “Thou shalt not …” He does say that it is a good idea to avoid certain kinds of behaviour and he issues a series of wholly positive injunctions on his followers. Regardless of background, regardless of belief, regardless of economic or political systems, Buddhism has application. It makes sense as nothing else can to restore balance to men. Not that it is even desirable to effect a balance from the Buddhist point of view. To realize the concept of anicca is unquestionably for all men enough.

But the Buddhist could assist his own goals by a realization of the objectivity of the social scientist. Here the scientist takes the view of detachment toward his fellow man. He does not seek amelioration. The Buddhist can and should do the same; by so doing, he may achieve by indirection solutions to the problem of human suffering. The Lord Buddha realized that the man who helped himself would inevitably help others. He comes concretely to grips with problems of society and personality. Psycho-analysis may in some measure be compared with enlightenment, but the enlightened man does not need to be told how to live with his fellows. The nature of enlightenment brings this inevitably about. The Buddhist can adopt the contemplative detachment of the scientist. In so doing, he makes himself a better Buddhist and follows infinitely more closely the basic precepts. Objectivity in human affairs remains his watchword.

Buddhist practice and scientific inquiry are both based on finding unconditioned truth through empirical observation. The Buddha himself said, “Don’t just believe in something because it has been repeated by many people… even if it is found in holy scripture.”

The dharma teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche considers Buddhism not a “religion,” but a “science of mind.” The Dalai Lama said that if science ever disproves Buddhism, Buddhism must change. And Thich Nhat Hanh has said that science has helped him better understand Buddhism. So Buddhism and science make natural bedfellows.

The dialogues between Buddhist masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and scientists have focused so far primarily on three areas. One is astrophysics, concerning primarily how the universe developed. Does it have a beginning? Was it created or is it part of an eternal process? Another topic is particle physics, regarding the structure of atoms and matter. The third is neurosciences, about how the brain works. These are the main areas.

One of the conclusions that both science and Buddhism reach in common is that there is no creator. In science, the theory of the conservation of matter and energy states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Buddhists totally agree and extend the principle to mind as well. “Mind” in Buddhism means awareness of phenomena – either conscious or unconscious – and awareness of phenomena can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Thus, rebirth is simply a transformation in the ongoing continuity of an individual’s awareness of phenomena, but now with the physical basis of another body.

Particle physicists emphasize the role of the observer in defining anything. For example, from a certain point of view, light is matter; from another point of view, it is energy. What type of phenomenon light seems to exist as depends on many variables, particularly on the conceptual framework the investigator is using to analyze it. Thus, phenomena do not exist inherently as this or that from their own sides, unrelated to the consciousness that perceives them.

Buddhism asserts the same thing: what things exist as depends on the observer and the conceptual framework with which the person regards them. For example, whether a certain situation exists as a horrible problem or as something solvable depends on the observer, the person involved. If somebody has the conceptual framework, “This is an impossible situation and nothing can be done,” then there really is a difficult problem that cannot be solved. However, with the frame of mind that thinks, “This is complicated and complex, but there is a solution if we approach it in a different way,” then that person is much more open to try to find a solution. What is a huge problem for one person is not a big deal for another. It depends on the observer, for our problems do not inherently exist as monstrous problems. Thus, science and Buddhism come to the same conclusion: phenomena exist as this or that dependent on the observer.

Similarly, neurologists and Buddhists both note the dependently arising relationship of things. For example, when the neurologists examine the brain in an attempt to find what makes our decisions, they find that there is no separate “decision-maker” in the brain. No little person called “me” sits inside the head, receiving information from the eyes, ears and so on, as if on a computer screen, and makes decisions by pushing a button so that the arm does this and the leg does that. Rather, decisions are the results of complex interactions of an enormous network of nerve impulses and chemical and electrical processes. Together, they bring the result, a decision. This happens without there being a distinct entity that is a decision- maker. Buddhism emphasizes the same thing: there is no “me” which is permanent and solid sitting in our heads, which makes our decisions. Conventionally, we say, “I’m experiencing this. I’m doing that,” but actually, what occurs is the result of a very complex interaction of many different factors. Science and Buddhism are very close in this regard.


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