Buddhism and science

Buddhism and science

Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible, and Buddhism has entered into the science and religion dialogue.[1] 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 evolution, quantum theory, and cosmology, though most scientists see a separation between the religious and metaphysical statements of Buddhism and the methodology of science.[2] 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.[4]

Buddhism has been described by some as rational and non-dogmatic, and there is evidence that this has been the case from the earliest period of its history,[5] though some have suggested this aspect is given greater emphasis in modern times and is in part a reinterpretation.[6] Not all forms of Buddhism eschew dogmatism, remain neutral on the subject of the supernatural, or are open to scientific discoveries. Buddhism is a varied tradition and aspects include fundamentalism,[7] devotional traditions,[8] supplication to local spirits, and various superstitions.[9] Nevertheless, certain commonalities have been cited between scientific investigation and Buddhist thought. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, in a speech at the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, listed a "suspicion of absolutes" and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principles shared between Buddhism and science.[10]


  • Buddhism and the scientific method 1
  • Buddhism and psychology 2
  • Buddhism as science 3
  • Notable scientists on Buddhism 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Buddhism and the scientific method

More consistent with the scientific method than traditional, faith-based religion, the Kalama Sutta insists on a proper assessment of evidence, rather than a reliance on faith, hearsay or speculation:

"Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, not by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But, O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up...And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them."[11]

The general tenor of the sutta is also similar to "Nullius in verba" — often translated as "Take no-one's word for it", the motto of the Royal Society.[12]

Buddhism and psychology

During the 1970s, several experimental studies suggested that Buddhist meditation could produce insights into a wide range of psychological states. Interest in the use of meditation as a means of providing insight into mind-states has recently been revived, following the increased availability of such brain-scanning technologies as fMRI and SPECT.

Such studies are enthusiastically encouraged by the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who has long expressed an interest in exploring the connection between Buddhism and science and regularly attends the Mind and Life Institute Conferences.[13]

In 1974 the Kagyu Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa predicted that "Buddhism will come to the West as psychology". This view was apparently regarded with considerable skepticism at the time, but Buddhist concepts have indeed made most in-roads in the psychological sciences. Some modern scientific theories, such as Rogerian psychology, show strong parallels with Buddhist thought. Some of the most interesting work on the relationship between Buddhism and science is being done in the area of comparison between Yogacara theories regarding the store consciousness and modern evolutionary biology, especially DNA. This is because the Yogacara theory of karmic seeds works well in explaining the nature/nurture problem. See the works by William Waldron on this topic, e.g. Waldron (1995),[14] (2002)[15] and (2003).[16]

William James often drew on Buddhist cosmology when framing perceptual concepts, such as his term "stream of consciousness," which is the literal English translation of the Pali vinnana-sota. The "stream of consciousness" is given various names throughout the many languages of Buddhadharma discourse but in English is generally known as "Mindstream".[17] In Varieties of Religious Experience James also promoted the functional value of meditation for modern psychology.[18] He is said to have proclaimed in a course lecture at Harvard, "This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now."[19][20]

Buddhism as science

Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka describes Buddhadharma as a 'pure science of mind and matter'.[21] He claims Buddhism uses precise, analytical philosophical and psychological terminology and reasoning. Goenka's presentation describes Buddhism not so much as belief in a body of unverifiable dogmas, but an active, impartial, objective investigation of things as they are.

What is generally accepted in Buddhism is that effects arise from causation. From his very first discourse onwards, the Buddha explains the reality of things in terms of cause and effect. The existence of misery and suffering in any given individual is due to the presence of causes. One way to describe the Buddhist eightfold path is a turning towards the reality of things as they are right now and understanding reality directly, although it is debated the degree to which these investigations are metaphysical or epistemological.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has written the following on Buddhism and science[22] "In Buddhism there are two kinds of truth: conventional truth (S: samvṛti-satya C: 俗諦) and ultimate truth (S: paramārtha-satya, C: 真諦). In the framework of the conventional truth, Buddhists speak of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc… and the Buddhist teaching and practice based on this framework helps reduce suffering, and bring more harmony and happiness. In the framework of the ultimate truth, the teaching transcends notions of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc… and the teaching and practice based on this insight help practitioners liberate themselves from discrimination, fear, and touch nirvana, the ultimate reality. Buddhists see no conflict between the two kinds of truth and are free to make good use of both frameworks.

Classical science, as seen in Newton’s theories, is built upon a framework reflecting everyday experience, in which material objects have an individual existence, and can be located in time and space. Quantum physics provides a framework for understanding how nature operates on subatomic scales, but differs completely from classical science, because in this framework, there is no such thing as empty space, and the position of an object and its momentum cannot simultaneously be precisely determined. Elementary particles fluctuate in and out of existence, and do not really exist but have only a “tendency to exist”.

Classical science seems to reflect the conventional truth and quantum physics seems to be on its way to discover the absolute truth, trying very hard to discard notions such as being and non-being, inside and outside, sameness and otherness, etc.… At the same time, scientists are trying to find out the relationship between the two kinds of truth represented by the two kinds of science, because both can be tested and applied in life.

In science, a theory should be tested in several ways before it can be accepted by the scientific community. The Buddha also recommended, in the Kālāma Sūtra1, that any teaching and insight given by any teacher should be tested by our own experience before it can be accepted as the truth. Real insight, or right view (S: samyag-dṛṣṭi, C: 正見), has the capacity to liberate, and to bring peace and happiness. The findings of science are also insight; they can be applied in technology, but can be applied also to our daily behavior to improve the quality of our life and happiness. Buddhists and scientists can share with each other their ways of studying and practice and can profit from each other’s insights and experience.

The practice of mindfulness and concentration always brings insight. It can help both Buddhists and scientists. Insights transmitted by realized practitioners like the Buddhas and bodhisattvas can be a source of inspiration and support for both Buddhist practitioners and scientists, and scientific tests can help Buddhist practitioners understand better and have more confidence in the insight they receive from their ancestral teachers. It is our belief that in this 21st Century, Buddhism and science can go hand in hand to promote more insight for us all and bring more liberation, reducing discrimination, separation, fear, anger, and despair in the world."

1 Aṅguttara Nikaya 3.65

Notable scientists on Buddhism

Niels Bohr, who developed the Bohr Model of the atom, said,

For a parallel to the lesson of atomic theory...[we must turn] to those kinds of epistemological problems with which already thinkers like the Buddha and Lao Tzu have been confronted, when trying to harmonize our position as spectators and actors in the great drama of existence.[23]

Nobel Prize–winning philosopher Bertrand Russell described Buddhism as a speculative and scientific philosophy:

Buddhism is a combination of both speculative and scientific philosophy. It advocates the scientific method and pursues that to a finality that may be called Rationalistic. In it are to be found answers to such questions of interest as: 'What is mind and matter? Of them, which is of greater importance? Is the universe moving towards a goal? What is man's position? Is there living that is noble?' It takes up where science cannot lead because of the limitations of the latter's instruments. Its conquests are those of the mind.[24]

The American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer made an analogy to Buddhism when describing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle:

If we ask, for instance, whether the position of the electron remains the same, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether the electron's position changes with time, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether the electron is at rest, we must say 'no;' if we ask whether it is in motion, we must say 'no.' The Buddha has given such answers when interrogated as to the conditions of man's self after his death; but they are not familiar answers for the tradition of seventeenth and eighteenth-century science.[25]

Nobel Prize–winning physicist Albert Einstein, who developed the general theory of relativity and the special theory of relativity, also known for his mass–energy equivalence, described Buddhism as containing a strong cosmic element:

...there is found a third level of religious experience, even if it is seldom found in a pure form. I will call it the cosmic religious sense. This is hard to make clear to those who do not experience it, since it does not involve an anthropomorphic idea of God; the individual feels the vanity of human desires and aims, and the nobility and marvelous order which are revealed in nature and in the world of thought. He feels the individual destiny as an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance. Indications of this cosmic religious sense can be found even on earlier levels of development—for example, in the Psalms of David and in the Prophets. The cosmic element is much stronger in Buddhism, as, in particular, Schopenhauer's magnificent essays have shown us. The religious geniuses of all times have been distinguished by this cosmic religious sense, which recognizes neither dogmas nor God made in man's image. Consequently there cannot be a church whose chief doctrines are based on the cosmic religious experience. It comes about, therefore, that we find precisely among the heretics of all ages men who were inspired by this highest religious experience; often they appeared to their contemporaries as atheists, but sometimes also as saints.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Yong, Amos. (2005) Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (review) Buddhist-Christian Studies - Volume 25, 2005, pp. 176-180
  2. ^ Donald S. Lopez Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press 2008)
  3. ^ Kress, Oliver (1993). "A new approach to cognitive development: ontogenesis and the process of initiation". Evolution and Cognition 2(4): 319-332.
  4. ^ Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja "Magic, Science and Religion and the Scope of Rationality" (Cambridge University Press 1990)
  5. ^ "Buddhist Scriptures: Kalama Sutta". Buddhanet.net. Retrieved 2013-03-04. 
  6. ^ Snodgrass, Judith. (2007) Defining Modern Buddhism: Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids and the Pāli Text Society Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East - Volume 27, Number 1, 2007, pp. 186-202
  7. ^ "Journal of Buddhist Ethics ''A Review of Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka''". Buddhistethics.org. Retrieved 2013-03-04. 
  8. ^ Safire, William (2007) The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge ISBN 0-312-37659-6 p.718
  9. ^ Deegalle, Mahinda (2006) Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka ISBN 0-7914-6897-6 p.131
  10. ^ "The Neuroscience of Meditation." November 12, 2005 speech given by the Dalai Lama
  11. ^ Rahula & Demieville (1974) pp.2-3
  12. ^ in Berkeley Science ReviewKarma and the CortexRobin Padilla (2008)
  13. ^ Christina Reed, "Talking Up Enlightenment." Scientific American, 6 February 2006.
  14. ^ Waldron, William S. (1995). How Innovative is the Ālayavijñāna?: The ālayavijñāna in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijñāna theory. Source: [1] (accessed: Wednesday April 21, 2010).
  15. ^ Waldron, William S. (2002). Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Thinking about 'Thoughts without a Thinker'. Source: [2] (accessed: Wednesday April 21, 2010).
  16. ^ Waldron, William S. (2003). The Buddhist unconscious: the ālaya-vijñāna in the context of Indian Buddhist thought. RoutledgeCurzon critical studies in Buddhism. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29809-1, ISBN 978-0-415-29809-4
  17. ^ B. Alan Wallace, Brian Hodel (2008). Embracing mind: the common ground of science and spirituality. Shambhala Publications. ISBN 1-59030-482-9, ISBN 978-1-59030-482-2. Source: [3], (accessed: Wednesday April 21, 2010) p.186
  18. ^ William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. (1902; New York: Viking Penguin, 1982).
  19. ^ Fields, Rick (1992). How the Swans Came to the Lake (3rd ed.). Shambhala Publications. p. 134-135. 
  20. ^ Fessenden, Tracy; Radel, Nicholas F.; Zaborowska, Magdalena J. (2014). The Puritan Origins of American Sex: Religion, Sexuality, and National Identity in American Literature. Routledge. p. 209. 
  21. ^ http://www.vri.dhamma.org/newsletters/en/en1998-08.shtml
  22. ^ "Categories View | Events". Plumvillage.org. 2009-04-11. Retrieved 2013-03-04. 
  23. ^ 1958 Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, (edited by John Wiley and Sons, 1958) p. 20.
  24. ^ Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason," Verhoeven, Martin J., ''Religion East and West'', Issue 1, June 2001, pp. 77-97""". Online.sfsu.edu. Retrieved 2013-03-04. 
  25. ^ J. R. Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, (Oxford University Press, 1954) pp 8-9.
  26. ^ Religion and Science (1930)

Further reading

  • Sarunya Prasopchingchana & Dana Sugu, 'Distinctiveness of the Unseen Buddhist Identity' (International Journal of Humanistic Ideology, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, vol. 4, 2010)
  • Donald S. Lopez Jr., Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press 2008)
  • Matthieu Ricard, Trinh Xuan Thuan, The Quantum and the Lotus (Three Rivers Press 2004)
  • Richard H. Jones, Science and Mysticism: A Comparative Study of Western Natural Science, Theravada Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta (Bucknell University Press, 1986; paperback ed., 2008)
  • Richard H. Jones, Piercing the Veil: Comparing Science and Mysticism as Ways of Knowing Reality (Jackson Square Books, 2010)
  • Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, (Morgan Road Books 2005)
  • McMahan, David, “Modernity and the Discourse of Scientific Buddhism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 72, No. 4 (2004), 897-933.
  • B. Alan Wallace, Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness (Columbia Univ Press 2007)
  • B. Alan Wallace (ed), Buddhism and Science: breaking new ground (Columbia Univ Press 2003)
  • B. Alan Wallace, Choosing Reality: A Buddhist Perspective of Physics and the Mind, (Snow Lion 1996)
  • Robin Cooper, The Evolving Mind: Buddhism, Biology and Consciousness, Windhorse (Birmingham UK 1996)
  • Daniel Goleman (in collaboration with The Dalai Lama), Destructive Emotions, Bloomsbury (London UK 2003)
  • Rapgay L, Rinpoche VL, Jessum R, Exploring the nature and functions of the mind: a Tibetan Buddhist meditative perspective, Prog. Brain Res. 2000 vol 122 pp 507–15

External links

  • What is the science when compare to Buddhism?
  • Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies
  • Buddhism and Science
  • Full text of 2004 paper examining effects of long-term meditation on brain function
  • Full text of 2003 paper examining the effect of mindfulness meditation on brain and immune function
  • The Mind and Life Conferences
  • Buddha on the Brain - Dalai Lama on the Society for Neuroscience's annual conference
  • Collection of quotes regarding Buddhism and science
  • [Science meets Dharma] Pratityasamutpada. http://philpapers.org/rec/KOHPIE