Buddhism and Science:
the Boundaries of Faith and Reason
Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven
and West, Issue 1, June 2001, pp. 77-97
in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, historically coincided with the rise
of modern science and the corresponding perceived decline of religious orthodoxy
in the West. Put simply: Modern science initiated a deep spiritual crisis that
led to an unfortunate split between faith and reason-a split yet to be reconciled.
Buddhism was seen as an "alternative altar," a bridge that could reunite
the estranged worlds of matter and spirit. Thus, to a large extent Buddhism's
flowering in the West during the last century came about to satisfy post-Darwinian
needs to have religious beliefs grounded in new scientific truth.
still constitutes something of a "religion" in the West, the near-absolute
arbiter of truth, considerable cachet still attends the linking of Buddhism to
science. Such comparison and assimilation is inevitable and in some ways, healthy.
At the same time, we need to examine more closely to what extent the scientific
paradigm actually conveys the meaning of Dharma. Perhaps the resonance between
Buddhism and Western science is not as significant as we think. Ironically, adapting
new and unfamiliar Buddhist conceptions to more ingrained Western thought-ways,
like science, renders Buddhism more popular and less exotic; it also threatens
to dilute its impact and distort its content.
Historians since the end of
World War II, have suggested that the encounter between East and West represents
the most significant event of the modern era. Bertrand Russell pointed to this
shift at the end of World War II when he wrote, "If we are to feel at home
in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only
politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But
I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance."
recently, the historian Arthur Versluis, in a new book, American Transcendentalism
and Asian Religions (1993), pieced together five or six major historical views
on this subject, and presented this by way of conclusion:
However much people
today realize it, the encounter of Oriental and Occidental religious and philosophical
traditions, of Buddhist and Christian and Hindu and Islamic perspectives, must
be regarded as one of the most extraordinary meetings of our age. . . . Arnold
Toynbee once wrote that of all the historical changes in the West, the most important-and
the one whose effects have been least understood-is the meeting of Buddhism in
the Occident. . . . And when and if our era is considered in light of larger societal
patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West,
the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world, will form a much
larger part of history than we today with our political-economic emphases, may
These are not isolated opinions. Many writers, scholars, intellectuals,
scientists, and theologians have proclaimed the importance of the meeting of East
and West. Occidental interest in the Orient predates the modern era. There is
evidence of significant contact between East and West well before the Christian
era. Even in the New World, curiosity and interchange existed right from the beginning,
as early as the 1700s. One can find allusions to Asian religions in Cotton Mather,
Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and of course, more developed expressions in
Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
By the mid-twentieth century
this growing fascination with Asian thought led Arnold Toynbee to envision a new
world civilization emerging from a convergence of East and West. He anticipated
that the spiritual philosophies of Asia would touch profoundly on the three basic
dimensions of human existence: Our relationships with each other (social); with
ourselves (psychological); and, with the physical world (natural). What is the
shape and significance of this encounter? What does Buddhism contribute to the
deeper currents of Western thought; and more specifically, to our struggle to
reconcile faith with reason, religion with science?
Science was already the
ascendant intellectual sovereign when Buddhism made its first serious entry on
the American scene in the latter decades of the 19th century. A World's Parliament
of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago,
brought to America for the first time a large number of Asian representatives
of the Buddhist faith. These missionaries actively and impressively participated
in an open forum with Western theologians, scientists, ministers, scholars, educators,
and reformers. This unprecedented ecumenical event in the American heartland came
at a most opportune time. America was ready and eager for a new source of inspiration,
ex orient lux, the 'light of Asia.'
By the 1890s America was caught in the
throes of a spiritual crisis affecting Christendom worldwide. Modern scientific
discoveries had so undermined a literal interpretation of sacred scripture, that
for many educated and thoughtful people, it was no longer certain that God was
in his heaven and that all was right with the world. These rapid changes and transformations
in almost every aspect of traditional faith, had such irreversible corrosive effects
on religious orthodoxy, that they were dubbed, "acids of modernity."
They ate away at received convictions, and ushered in an unprecedented erosion
of belief. People like my grandparents, brought up with rock-solid belief in the
infallible word of God, found their faith shaken to its very foundations. It was
as if overnight they suddenly awoke to a new world governed not by theological
authority but by scientists. New disclosures from the respected disciplines of
geology, biology, and astronomy challenged and shattered Biblical accounts of
the origins of the natural world and our place and purpose in it. Sigmund Freud
captured the spirit of the age well when he said "the self-love of mankind
has been three times wounded by science." The Copernican Revolution, continued
by Galileo, took our little planet out of the center position in the universe.
The Earth, held to be the physical and metaphysical center of the Universe, was
reduced to a tiny speck revolving around a sun. Then Darwin all but eliminated
the divide between animal and man, and with it the "special creation"
status enjoyed by humans. Darwin, moreover, diminished God. The impersonal forces
of natural selection kept things going; no divine power was necessary. Nor, from
what any competent scientist could demonstrate with any factual certainty, was
any Divinity even evident-either at the elusive "creation," or in the
empirical present. Karl Marx people portrayed people as economic animals grouped
into competing classes driven by material self-interest. Finally, Freud himself
characterized religious faith as an evasion of truth, a comforting illusion sustained
by impulses and desires beyond the reach of the rational intellect. Nietzsche's
famous declaration that "God is Dead" may have seemed extreme, but few
would have denied that God was ailing. And certainly the childhood version of
a personal, all-powerful God that created the world and ruled over it with justice
and omniscience was for many a comforting vision lost forever.
One of the
lingering side effects of this loss has been the unfortunate disjunction of matter
and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between
matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts
and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism. An
unwelcome spiritual and psychological legacy from the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, it is still very much with us today, something that haunts our psyches.
Much of today's near-obsession with therapy in the West, and even the shift
toward psychologizing religion (including the "New Age" phenomenon)
could be seen as attempts to heal this deep sense of alienation. The pragmatic
philosopher, John Dewey, wrote: "The pathological segregation of facts and
value, matter and spirit, or the bifurcation of nature, this integration [i. e.
the problem of integrating this] poses the deepest problem of modern life."
This problem both inspires and confounds contemporary philosophy and religion.
Wholeness eludes us while the split endures; and yet, almost tragically, the very
means we have available to heal it insure its continuation. For, all of our philosophies,
academic disciplines, therapies, and even religious traditions are informed by
and rooted in aspects of this dualism. Perhaps the most visible expression of
this pathological segregation is the gap between science and religion.
when the eminent philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead scanned
the broad outlines of our time, he wrote: "The future course of history would
center on this generation's resolving the issue of the proper relationship between
science and religion, so fundamental are the religious symbols through which people
give meaning to their lives and so powerful the scientific knowledge through which
we shape and control our lives." And it is in regard to this troubling issue,
I think, that Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, are seen to hold out the
promise of achieving some resolution. The idea dates back over a hundred years.
After the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, one Paul Carus, a Chicago-based
editor of the Open Court Press, invited some of the influential Japanese Buddhist
delegates to a week-long discussion at the home of Carus's father-in-law, Edward
Hegeler. Both deeply felt the spiritual crisis of the times. Both were trying
to reform Christianity to bring it in line with current thought; in short, to
make religion scientific. It occurred to them that Buddhism was already compatible
with science, and could be used to nudge Christianity in the same direction. Toward
this end, Carus wanted to support a Buddhist missionary movement to the United
States from Asia. His thinking was to create something of a level playing field.
Carus had witnessed the most ambitious missionary undertaking in modern history
that send thousands of Protestant missionaries abroad to convert the people 'sitting
in darkness.' He wished to conduct a Darwinian experiment of 'survival of the
fittest." His goal: to bring Buddhist missionaries to America where they
could engage in healthy competition with their Christian counterparts in the East,
and thus determine the "fittest" to survive.
With the aid of his
wealthy father-in-law who put up money, they sponsored a number of Eastern missionaries
to the United States: Anagarika Dharmapala, from what was then Ceylon, now Sri
Lanka; Swami Vivekananda, from India representing the Ramakrishna Vedanta movement;
and Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Buddhist monk, and Shaku's young disciple D.T. Suzuki.
During his stay in the United States in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Suzuki
lived in the small town of LaSalle/Peru, Illinois. He was in his twenties then,
and for about eleven years he worked closely with Paul Carus translating Buddhist
texts into English and putting out inexpensive paperback editions of the Asian
classics. Suzuki later became the leading exponent of Zen in the West, when he
returned in the 1950s on a Rockefeller grant to lecture extensively at East Coast
colleges. He influenced writers and thinkers like Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erich
Fromm, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, and the "beat Buddhists"-Jack
Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo. His influence
in the West was profound-making Zen an English word, translating Asian texts into
English, stimulating a scholarly interest in the Orient among American intellectuals,
and deepening American respect and enthusiasm for Buddhism. The historian Lynn
White Jr. praised Suzuki as someone who broke through the "shell of the Occident"
and made the West's thinking global. His introduction to the West came about through
the hands of Paul Carus.
These early missionaries of Buddhism to the
West, including Carus himself, all shared the same modern, reformist outlook.
They translated Buddhism into a medium and a message compatible and resonant with
the scientific and progressive spirit of the Age. They selectived passages of
text to favor that slant, and carefully presented the Buddhist teachings in such
a way as to appeal to modern sensibilities-empirical, rational, and liberal. Americans
wanted religion to "make sense," to accord with conventional wisdom.
Then, as now, our primary mode of making sense of things was positivist-reliable
knowledge based on natural phenomena as verified by empirical sciences. So firmly
entrenched is the scientific outlook that it has for all practical purposes taken
on a near-religious authority. Few, then or now, critically question our faith
in science; we presume its validity and give it an almost unquestioned place as
the arbiter of truth.
Thus, the early missionaries of Buddhism to America
purposely stripped Buddhism of any elements that might appear superstitious, mythological,
even mystical. Dharmapala, Suzuki, and Vivekananda clearly ascertained that Americans
measured truth in science, and science posed little theological threat to a Buddhist
and Hindu worldview. After all, Buddhism had unique advantages for someone who
rejected their faith (Christian) due to its authoritarianism and unscientific
1) Buddhism did not assert or depend upon the existence of a God
Buddhism was a superstition-free moral ideal; it conformed to the scientific view
of an ordered universe ruled by law (Dharma)-a system both moral and physical
where everything seemed to work itself out inexorably over vast periods of time
without divine intervention (karma)
3) Buddhism posited no belief in gods who
could alter the workings of this natural law
4) Buddhism was a religion of
self-help with all depending on the individual working out his/her own salvation
"Original" Buddhism was seen as the "Protestantism of Asia,"
and Buddha as another Luther who swept away the superstitions and rituals of an
older, corrupted form and took religion back to its pure and simple origins
Buddhism presented an attractive personal founder who led life of great self-sacrifice;
parallels were drawn between Jesus and Buddha as the inspiration of a personal
figure exerted strong appeal to seekers who had given up on theology and metaphysics.
Thus, Buddhism was packaged and presented in its most favorable light viz a viz
the current spiritual crisis in the West; and, not surprisingly, Buddhism seemed
immensely reasonable and appealing to Americans. Darwinism might be undermining
Biblical Christianity, but it only enhanced Buddhism's standing.
fact, Darwin's theory of evolution, which struck the most severe blow to the Judaeo-Christian
edifice, was taken up as the leading banner for Buddhist propagation. With Darwin
the concept of evolution became enshrined in the popular mind. Everything was
evolutionary-species, races, nations, economies, religions, the universe-from
the micro to the macro. Social Darwinists even saw evolution operating behind
the vicissitudes of free-market capitalism. As the constant interaction of stimulus
and response in nature, evolution seemed to match nicely with the notion of karma-the
cyclical unfolding of events governed by the law of cause and effect. So Anagarika
Dharmapala could announce in Chicago to his largely Judaeo-Christian audience
that "the theory of evolution was one of the ancient teachings of the Buddha."
As it was in nature (at least in the new natural world of Darwin), so it was in
the Buddhist universe.
Most people drawn to Eastern religions did not examine
very closely the supposed identity of Darwin's evolution and the Buddhist concept
of karma. They were content, even predisposed, to imagine them the same. Buddhists
ardent to convert Americans to Buddhism, as well as Christians eager to find some
correspondence between modern science and their beleaguered faith, were happy
to say, "Yes, the similarities are close enough; look, how the ancient Eastern
religions anticipated our modern science!" Vivekananda, the charismatic and
eloquent Ramakrishna delegate from India, met only hurrahs of affirmation when
he proclaimed to a Chicago audience that the latest discoveries of science seemed
"like the echoes from the high spiritual flights of Vedantic philosophy."
This facile view that Buddhism and science were cut of the same cloth accorded
nicely with the longing to reconnect the sacred and the secular. It held out hope
that religion could once again assume its rightful place alongside (if no longer
in the lead of) the emerging disciplines of biology, geology, and physics. It
also fit neatly with the presumed "unity of truth" that Victorians held
to so dearly-there could only be one truth, not two. The very nature of reality
demanded that the truths of science and religion be one and the same. Carus called
his new system of thought "the Religion of Science," and Max Muller
called his new theology "the Science of Religion."
This trend linking
Buddhism to science continued, even accelerated, into the 20th century. Einstein's
work and further developments in the new cutting-edge physics seemed to provide
even further evidence that science and Buddhism were merely different rivers leading
to the same sea. Where the old theologies crumbled under the juggernaut of science,
Buddhism seemed to hold its own, even thrive. The early (and even contemporary)
exponents of Buddhism pushed this idea. It remains an area of great promise and
interest; but it is not one without difficulties.
One of the first to question
this marriage, interestingly, was also one of its earliest proponents, D.T. Suzuki.
When Suzuki came to the United States to collaborate with Paul Carus, both were
outspoken advocates of the link between Buddhism and science. Suzuki's early writings
make virtually no distinction between Buddhism and science. For Suzuki, Buddhism
was eminently modern and progressive, compatible with the latest discoveries in
Western psychology and philosophy. It was, in a word, scientifically sound.
By the time Suzuki returned to the United States in the 1950s, however, he had
experienced a change of heart. He then wrote that his initial thinking-that religion
must be based on scientific grounds and that Christianity was based on too much
mythology-was a little ill-founded. An older, perhaps wiser Suzuki, came to doubt
the sufficiency of a religion based on science, and even saw the need for religion
to critique science. In 1959, Suzuki wrote that his early modernist agreement
with Hegeler and Carus that "religion must stand on scientific grounds...Christianity
was based too much on mythology," was ill-founded. "If it were possible
for me to talk with them now," he reflected, "I would tell them that
my ideas have changed from theirs somewhat. I now think that a religion based
solely on science is not enough. There are certain 'mythological' elements in
every one of us, which cannot be altogether lost in favor of science. This is
a conviction I have come to."
What had changed? First of all, two world
wars. As the contemporary writer Kurt Vonnegut has wryly observed, "We took
scientific truth and dropped it on the people of Hiroshima." Suzuki was,
of course, Japanese; he felt directly the negative weight of modern science. Having
survived the brutal experience of a war initiated, carried out, and ended with
weapons of mass destruction born of modern science, he was left less sanguine
about the idyllic marriage with religion and science that he had heralded at the
turn of the century. Suzuki was enjoying the wisdom of hindsight; but in fairness
to Suzuki, so were many other people.
Since Suzuki's turnabout in 1959, there
have been even further, more fundamental challenges to the presumed closeness
of Buddhism and science. Questions have arisen in two areas. One, as a society
we have come to reassess the blessings and the promise of modern science in terms
of the socio-psychological impact. While people are mesmerized by science and
dream about what science can do for them, they also have nightmares about what
science can do to them. This bittersweet realization lingers in the contemporary
psyche: we dream about all the wonderful things science is going to do for us;
at the same time we are haunted by unsettling specters of the dreadful things
science could do to us. This concern and troubling ambivalence seems to grow,
not diminish, with each scientific advance.
At the popular level, movies
and television play on variations of the Frankenstein, Godzilla, the X-Files motif,
reflecting anxieties over science-gone-wrong. These "monsters" give
form (albeit imaginary) to some of humanity's deepest fears. They reflect not
only the apprehension of Pandora's box unearthed, but more significantly, the
hubris of human pride and lust for power unrestrained. Nowhere is this more evident
than in the new field of biotechnology-the actual manipulation of life at the
subtle genetic source. Scientists now talk of the end of evolution, the end of
nature, in the sense that humans will soon replace nature to direct the course
of creation themselves. Doctor Panayiotis Zavos, who is now actively engaged in
producing the first human clone, announced proudly, ``Now that we have crossed
into the third millennium, we have the technology to break the rules of nature.''
Thus, the development and unleashing of "advanced" weapons of mass
destruction through two World Wars, the Cold War, and now almost daily in "hot
spots" throughout the world; the unenlightened tampering with nature that
has brought about widespread environmental pollution; the almost cavalier experiments
with human reproduction, cloning, genetically engineered life, chemical-biological
warfare-all threaten to make reality more frightening than fiction.
area of doubt regarding modern science arises from within the scientific community
itself. The last decades of the 20th century have seen an internal reexamination
take place within almost every scientific discipline, as each has been forced
to question its own foundations and exclusive claims to truth. We are in the midst
of a major paradigm shift, the outcome of which still remains unclear. It revolves
around a loss of the positivistic certainty that science once enjoyed and now
finds slipping away. Ironically, the scientific "establishment" finds
itself confronting a challenge to its exclusive authority that in many ways mirrors
the spiritual crisis that religious orthodoxy faced with the triumph of modern
Sigmund Freud exemplifies this ironic shift. Perhaps more than any
modern thinker, he contributed to the undermining of religious certainty. He stated
quite unequivocally that "an illusion would be to suppose that what science
would not give us, we can get elsewhere." Elsewhere, of course, refers to
religion, as he made clear in his pessimistic indictment of religion in The Future
of an Illusion. And yet his own psychoanalytic theory has become a matter of intense
debate, and has come under the critical scrutiny of the very scientific system
he felt would validate his ideas. But it is in areas other than psychology, most
notably in physics, and increasingly in the life sciences, that a growing body
of new knowledge is beginning to strain existing models of explanation and understanding.
With the ground-breaking work of Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, and Sir Arthur
Eddington, the rock-solid presupposition central to that classical scientific
thought began to crumble. With the "new science" that started to emerge
in the post-World War II era, the observer and the observed could not be presumed
separate and distinct. Gone too was the neat subject/object distinction that had
come to define classical science. This shift away from the study of the "outside"
objective world of nature to the "inner" subjective world of the observer
is a hallmark of the new science. As Heisenberg observed, "Even in science,
the object of research is no longer nature itself, but man's investigation of
For example, Heisenberg pointed out that the very act of measurement
interfered with what one was attempting to measure. You cannot separate the subject
from the object of the experiment. So, if the scientist changes the very nature
of the "reality" he or she investigates, then what is truth? What is
purely objective fact? Where does the boundary lie (indeed, if there is one) between
the mind and the external world? Consequently, the quantum theory of the new physics
no longer claims to be describing "reality." It describes probable realities.
The new physics looks for possible realities and finds them so elusive that no
one model can exhaustively account for everything. The indeterminacy of models
has replaced earlier certainties.
Some, like Thomas Kuhn, even questioned
the notion of science as an objective progression towards truth. In The Structure
of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn observed that science, like religion, becomes
heavily encumbered with its own baggage of non-rational procedures. Science accumulates
its peculiar set of presuppositions, doctrines, and even heresies. Kuhn essentially
demolished the logical empiricist and purist view that science personified the
impartial progression towards a universal truth. Instead, he saw it as a series
of shifting "paradigms"-a global way of seeing things which is relatively
immune from disconfirmation by experience. One paradigm would hold sway for awhile,
only to be displaced in a "revolution" by another conceptual worldview.
These paradigms, both self-contained and self-perpetuating, tended to conserve
and perpetuate their own ideas, just as religion tends to conserve and perpetuate
its own beliefs.
For example, Galileo declared in the early 1600s that Copernicus
was correct: The earth moves, and the sun is the center of our galaxy. The Church
denounced these views as heresies and dangerous to the Faith. They forced Galileo
to recant during a trial under the Inquisition. Although he was publicly compelled
to affirm the existing "scientific" paradigm, Galileo still defied the
authorities. After getting up from his knees, he is said to have mumbled "E
pur si muove" (nevertheless it still moves). Placed under house arrest, Galileo
lived out the rest of his life in seclusion.
The world, of course, shifted
paradigms to accept the Copernican worldview. The Church, however, lagged behind,
and only in 1992 did the Vatican lift the 1616 ban on the Copernican teaching.
Einstein, whose theory of relativity was at first met with skepticism and doubt,
later became an icon of scientific genius. And yet, even Einstein found himself
resisting the new theories of the quantum physicists towards the end of his life-once
again adding credibility to Kuhn's thesis.
Whether Kuhn is correct or not
is beside the point. His critique illustrates a larger trend: the suspicion that
science does not have absolute answers, nor even ultimate authority. Thus, modern
science presents less of a unified front, less of a final bastion of truth. Certainly
many people still see themselves as living in a black and white world. But, in
general, many scientists are coming to define their discipline in a more humble
and tentative way. Science, for people at the turn of the century, stood for absolute,
fixed truths and principles that held good forever; it embraced and explained
an unchanging reality, or at least a reality that was changing according to constant
and predictable laws. Today we are more modest, less presumptuous. A better working
definition of science now might be "a form of inquiry into natural phenomena;
a consensus of information held at any one time and all of which may be modified
by new discoveries and new interpretations at any moment." In contemporary
science, uncertainty seems to be the rule.
Thus, it grows increasingly difficult
to believe in an external world governed by mechanisms that science discloses
once and for all. Thoughtful people find themselves hesitant, unmoored, with an
up-in-the-air kind of feeling regarding the most basic facts of life. It is said
that "we live in an age when anything is possible and nothing is certain."
This post-modern dilemma highlights the felt need to reconcile facts and values,
morals and machines, science with spirituality. And while traditional Judaeo-Christian
theologies struggle to address this particularly contemporary malaise, Buddhism
maneuvers this tricky terrain with apparent ease and finds itself sought after
with renewed interest and popularity.
Moreover, some observers have puzzled
over this anomaly: Asia accelerates in its secular and material modernization
(read "Westernization"), while the West shows signs of a spiritual revitalization
drawing on largely Asian sources-especially Buddhism. Buddhism is being 'Westernized'
to be seen as a teaching that can mesh with both the good life and mitigate the
stress of the faith/reason divide. Part of Buddhism's immense appeal lies in its
analysis of the mind, the subject/self-exactly the area where modern science now
senses the next breakthroughs are to be made.
The Buddha, well before Aquinas
or Heisenberg, stressed the primacy of the mind in the perception and even "creation"
of reality. A central concept of Buddhism is the idea that "everything is
made from the mind." Any distinction between subject and object is false,
imagined, at best an expedient nod to demands of conventional language. In the
Avatamsaka Sutra, the Buddha uses metaphor to elucidate: "The mind is like
an artist/It can paint an entire world. . . If a person knows the workings of
the mind/As it universally creates the world/This person then sees the Buddha/And
understands the Buddha's true and actual nature." (Chap. 20) We think we
are observing nature, but what we are observing is our own mind at work. We are
the subject and object of our own methodology. Moreover, this mind encompasses
the entirety of the universe; there is nothing outside of it, nothing it does
not contain, according to the Buddha.
Such insights early on intrigued Western
thinkers, as Buddhism hinted of a new avenues of travel through the mind/matter
maze. It led scientists like Albert Einstein to declare:
The religion of the
future will be cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas
and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based
on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual
and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. . . If there is any
religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
Nobel Prize winner was not alone in his positive assessment of the Buddhism's
potential for going beyond the boundaries of Western thought. The British mathematician,
philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared, "Buddhism is the most colossal
example in the history of applied metaphysics." His contemporary Bertrand
Russell, another Nobel Prize winner, found in Buddhism the greatest religion in
history because "it has had the smallest element of persecution." But
beyond the freedom of inquiry he attributed to the Buddha's teaching, Russell
discovered a superior scientific method-one that reconciled the speculative and
the rational while investigating the ultimate questions of life:
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.
As early as the 1940's, the pioneering physicist
Niels Bohr sensed this congruence between modern science and what he called "Eastern
mysticism." As he investigated atomic physics and searched for a unified
field of reality, he often used the Buddha and Lao Tzu in his discussions on physics
in his classes. He made up his own coat of arms with the yin/yang symbol on it.
The American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer also saw in Buddhism a scientific
parallel to the puzzling riddles of modern physics; his cutting-edge discoveries
seemed to echo the enigmatic wisdom of the ancient sage. Wrote Oppeheimer:
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
In the 1970s, in The Tao Of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels
Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Fritjof Capra expanded on some of
Bohr's and Oppenheimer's tentative impressions. He argued that modern science
and Eastern mysticism offer parallel insights into the ultimate nature of reality.
But, beyond this, Capra suggested that the profound harmony between these concepts
as expressed in systems language and the corresponding ideas of Eastern mysticism
was impressive evidence for a remarkable claim: That mystical philosophy offers
the most consistent background to our modern scientific theories.
In the 1970s
this notion came as something of a bombshell. Suddenly religion and science reunited-though
in a rather unexpected way-Eastern religion and Western science. This echoed the
excitement of a hundred years previous that Carus and other late Victorians sensed
in Buddhism's potential. Then, however, the emphasis was on how Buddhism could
help establish religion on a more scientific basis; now, it seems the other way
around-that science is seeking Buddhism to stake out its spiritual or metaphysical
Regardless, those familiar with Buddhist texts immediately saw (or
thought they saw) the correctness of Capra's revelation. Certain Buddhist scriptures
in fact seemed most solidly to confirm the linking of science and Dharma. The
most oft-quoted is the famous teaching called the Kalama Sutta.
In this short
discourse, we find the Buddha in his wanderings coming upon the village of the
Kalamas. Religious seekers themselves, the Kalamas were bewildered by the plethora
of divergent philosophies and teachers vying for their attention. They proceeded
to ask the Buddha a series of questions. Here is the relevant portion of the text:
The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala.
The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama. When they heard
that the Buddha was in their town, the Kalamas paid him a visit, and told him:
"Sir, there are some recluses and brahmanas who visit Kesaputta. They explain
and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others'
doctrines. Then come other recluses and brahmanas, and they, too, in their turn,
explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn
others' doctrines. But, for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to
who among these venerable recluses and brahmanas spoke the truth, and who spoke
"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."
The Kalamas voiced their
doubts, their perplexity in determining truth or falsehood, as a result of having
been exposed to all the competing teachers and doctrines of India at the time:
not unlike our modern world today. Each teacher, each school, expounded different
and often conflicting notions of the truth. The Buddha's response was to set down
a methodology that was in many ways ahead of its time in anticipating the skeptical
empiricism of the modern scientific method.
He said, "Do not be led
by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don't be led by the authority even of religious
texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances"-all
of which eliminate exclusive reliance on cultural convention, received tradition,
and deductive speculation, as well as mere sense impressions. Also rejected were
opinions and "seeming possibilities"-the stuff of preconceived bias
and subjective imagination and fancy. (Some might argue that being "led by
appearances" would include a narrow scientific method, at least as it has
come to be popularly understood-i.e. an exaggerated reliance on natural phenomena
as the only basis of what is true or real. It would also dismiss the equally exaggerated
claim that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge.The Buddha
even discounts blind faith in one's teacher.
So what's left? Here the Buddha
lays out a subtle and quite unique epistemology: "Oh Kalamas, when you know
for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give
them up. And when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept
them and follow them." But how to interpret this key passage?
and believers, both recently and at the turn of the century, jumped at this passage
as confirmation that ancient Buddhist wisdom validates modern science. Early popularizers
of Eastern religions in America like Anagarika Dharmapala, D. T. Suzuki, Paul
Carus, and even Vedantists like Vivekananda, generally waxed enthusiastic about
the compatibility of Eastern spirituality and Western science. They saw in passages
like the Kalama Sutta proof positive that the Buddha prefigured the modern scientific
outlook. Buddhism seemed eminently scientific: detached skeptical investigation
of empirically testable phenomena; no faith, no dogma, no revelation. Experiments
carried out by and confirmed by individuals regardless of time or place suggested
"intersubjective testability"-one of the hallmarks of the scientific
method. I do it, you do it; anyone can do it and obtain the same results. That
Buddhism and science should be so nearly identical was understandably immensely
appealing; it is also misleading.
While American thinkers and newly converted
Western Buddhists thought they saw a natural fit between Buddhism and science,
Buddhist teachers more steeped in the traditional discipline were less apologetic
and often more critical of such facile comparisons. Two notable contemporary examples
come to mind: Master Hsuan Hua, from the Mahayana tradition, and Wapola Rahula,
a Theravada scholar-monk, both threw cold water on this notion.
Hsuan Hua, a Ch'an and Tripitika master from China, arrived in America in the
early 1960s to propagate the Dharma in the West. As he observed and studied the
trends and currents of contemporary thought, he showed little enthusiasm for what
seemed to him the exaggerated claims of modern science-theoretical or applied.
He said, "Within the limited world of the relative, that is where science
is. It's not an absolute Dharma. Science absolutely cannot bring true and ultimate
happiness to people, neither spiritually nor materially." This is strong
criticism that portrays science as a discipline limited to relative truths, and
as an unsatisfactory way of life. In another essay, he wrote:
Look at modern
science. Military weapons are modernized every day and are more and more novel
every month. Although we call this progress, it's nothing more than progressive
cruelty. Science takes human life as an experiment, as child's play, as it fulfills
its desires through force and oppression.
In 1989, Venerable Walpola
Rahula, a Theravadin monk from Sri Lanka, also warned that daily life is being
permeated by science. He cautioned, "We have almost become slaves of science
and technology; soon we shall be worshipping it." His comments come well
into the final decades of the twentieth century, when many people had in effect
turned science into a religious surrogate. The Venerable monk observed, "Early
symptoms are that they tend to seek support from science to prove the validity
of our religions." Walpola Rahula elaborated on this point:
them [i.e. religions] and make them modern, up-to-date, respectable, and accessible.
Although this is somewhat well intentioned, it is ill-advised. While there are
some similarities and parallel truths, such as the nature of the atom, the relativity
of time and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated whole,
all these things were developed by insight and purified by meditation.
critique goes to the heart of the matter: the capitulation of religion to scientific
positivism; the yielding of almost all competing schemes of values to the scientific
juggernaut. Huston Smith, the eminent scholar on the worlds religions, recently
said that the weakness of modern religions in the West stems from their successful
accommodation to culture. The contribution that Buddhism and other religions can
make to the spiritual crisis facing modern society, therefore, may not lie in
their compatibility with science, but in their ability to offer something that
More importantly, as Rahula argues, Dharma, or abiding spiritual
truths, were discovered without the help of any external instrument. Rahula concluded,
"It is fruitless, meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious
truth. It is incongruous and preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts
to prove and support perennial religious truths." Moreover, he echoes the
deeper moral concerns expressed by Master Hua regarding the unexamined aims and
consequences of the scientific endeavor:
Science is interested in the precise
analysis and study of the material world, and it has no heart. It knows nothing
about love or compassion or righteousness or purity of mind. It doesn't know the
inner world of humankind. It only knows the external, material world that surrounds
Rahula then suggests that the value of Buddhism redoubles, not as it can
be made to seem more scientific, but in its reaffirming a different sensibility,
an overarching and unyielding vision of humanity's higher potential. He concludes
On the contrary, religion, particularly Buddhism, aims at the
discovery and the study of humankind's inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological,
and intellectual. Buddhism is a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals
with humanity in total. It is a way of life. It is a path to follow and practice.
It teaches man how to develop his moral and ethical character, which in Sanskrit
is sila, and to cultivate his mind, samadhi, and to realize the ultimate truth,
prajna wisdom, Nirvana.
Both of these eminent monks pre-date and, in many
ways, stand outside the popularization and "Westernization" of Buddhism.
Unlike the Western-leaning translators of Buddhism Carus, Suzuki, Dharmapala,
et al., they emerged from a monastic discipline grounded in a more traditional
understanding, one less enamored of modern science and more critical of Western
philosophy. They would not so readily concur with Sir Edwin Arnold, who wrote
in his best-selling Light of Asia (1879) that "between Buddhism and modern
science there exists a close intellectual bond."
With this in mind,
it would do well to take another look at the passage quoted above from the Kalama
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.
These lines, I believe, hold the key to understanding
the difference between Buddhism and modern science. The passage needs to be understood
not simply as a nod to Western empiricism, but within a specific context of moral
inquiry. This "knowing for yourself" locates knowledge ('scientia')
firmly within the moral sphere, both in its aims and its outcomes. It employs
a meditative form of insight to penetrate the ultimate nature of reality. It implies
a concept quite foreign to modern science: that the knower and what is known,
the subject and object, fact and value, are not merely non-dual, but that knowledge
itself is inescapably influenced by our moral and ethical being. Perhaps this
is exactly what Suzuki intuited was lacking in modern science when he wrote in
1959, "I now think that a religion based solely on science is not enough.
There are certain 'mythological' elements in every one of us, which cannot be
altogether lost in favor of science."
Regardless, none of this critical
reassessment should come as a surprise to thoughtful Buddhists. The Shurangama
Sutra clearly notes, "when the seed planted is crooked, the fruit will be
distorted." The close link between intention and result, cause and effect,
is central to all Buddhist philosophy. It should be obvious and expected that
the very fabric of modern science, lacking as it does a firm grounding in the
moral sphere, would result in deleterious discoveries and incomplete uses. Tragic
examples abound attesting to the ill-fated marriage of scientific technology and
Nor, from a Buddhist perspective, can these examples be
seen as unintended consequences or accidents-they are, rather, unavoidable and
logical outcomes of a partial though powerful system of thought. There is nothing
in science per se that would lead one to equate its advancement with increased
social benefits and enhanced human values. And certainly the absence of ethical
imperatives should alert any knowledgeable Buddhist to a fundamental flaw in equating
the Eightfold Way with the practice of science. In fact, a close reading of the
Buddhist sources, it seems, would lead one to question: Is science in itself sufficient
for describing reality? Is it capable of meeting human needs?
Thus, the aforementioned
Kalamas passage, depending on one's frame of reference, could be seen more as
a critique of than a correspondence with modern science. The key to understanding
this difference lies in a correct Buddhist interpretation of "know for yourselves,"
"wholesome," and "unwholesome." As Walpola Rahula indicates,
these concepts are part of a specific and disciplined form or methodology of self-cultivation
which, when diligently practiced, leads to true knowledge and wisdom. This method
is referred to in Buddhism as the "three non-outflow science" (san wu
lou xue), and consists of morality, concentration, and wisdom (Sanskrit: sila,
The ethical component cannot be overemphasized, as "seeing
things as they really are" entails an indispensable preliminary: "purification
of the mind." This clarity of mind and concentrated awareness in turn begins
with and must be sustained by moral conduct. The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification),
an early Buddhist manual compiled in the 4th century by Buddhagosha, lists the
Buddha's "science" of inquiry as an interrelated three-step exercise
of virtue, meditation, and insight. This is quite a different approach to knowledge
than a modern-day scientist would presume or pursue. It is interesting that these
ancient wisdom traditions considered moral purity as the absolute prerequisite
of true knowledge, and that we today regard it as immaterial, if not downright
irrelevant. Thus, fundamental and qualitatively different views of what constitutes
knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge separate Buddhism and science.
Aspects of the above epistemological formula appear throughout the Asian religious
traditions. For example, Taoism speaks of cultivating the mind (hsin), regarding
it as the repository of perceptions and knowledge-it rules the body, it is spiritual
and like a divinity that will abide "only where all is clean." Thus
the Kuan Tzu (4 to 3rd century B.C.) cautions that "All people desire to
know, but they do not inquire into that whereby one knows." It specifies:
What all people desire to know is that (i.e., the external world),
their means of knowing is this (i.e. oneself);
How can we know that?
by the perfection of this. 1
Are we studying ourselves when we think we are
studying nature? Will the "new science" eventually come to Kuan Tzu's
conclusion that only "by perfecting this," can we truly know that? These
ancient writings raise an interesting question: How accurate and objective can
be the observation if the observer is flawed and imperfect? Is the relationship
between "consciousness" and matter as distinct as we are inclined to
The "perfection" mentioned above refers to the cultivation
of moral qualities and in Buddhist terminology, the elimination of "afflictions"
(klesa) such as greed, anger, ignorance, pride, selfishness, and emotional extremes.
It seems less an alteration of consciousness than a purification and quieting
of the mind. Mencius talks of obtaining an "unmoving mind" at age forty,
again referring to the cultivation of an equanimity resulting from the exercise
of moral sense. He distinguished between knowledge acquired from mental activity
and knowledge gained from intuitive insight. This latter knowledge he considered
superior as it gives noumenal as well as phenomenal understanding. Advaita Vedanta,
the philosophical teaching of Hinduism, as well emphasizes that jnana (knowledge)
requires a solid basis in ethics (Dharma). Chuang Tzu, spoke of acquiring knowledge
of "the ten thousand things" (i.e., of all nature) through virtuous
living and practicing stillness: "to a mind that is 'still' the whole universe
surrenders." 2 Even Confucius's famous passage concerning the highest learning
(da xue) connects utmost knowledge of the universe to the cultivation of one's
person and the rectification of one's mind. 3
The challenge from these eminent
Buddhist teachers to the nearly ex cathedra authority generally accorded to science
should give pause to anyone attempting a facile identification of Buddhism with
science. Their aims and methods, though tantalizingly parallel, upon closer analysis
diverge. Correspondences do exist, but fundamental differences inhere as well.
To gloss over them not only encourages sloppy thinking, but approaches hubris.
So we must ask: to what extent is our conception of science as the arbiter of
knowledge culture-bound, even myopic? Could our near total faith in science blind
us to an inherent bias in such a stance: we presume that the logic, norms, and
procedures of the scientific method are universally applicable and their findings
are universally valid. Science may not only have limited relevance for interpreting
Buddhism, but may distort our very understanding of its meaning.
a quest to reach an easy and elegant reconciliation of faith and reason, we may
unwittingly fall prey to "selective perception"-noticing and embracing
only those elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of thinking and
giving short shrift to the rest. Overplaying the similarities between science
and Buddhism can lead into a similar trap, where our dominant Western thought-way
(science) handicaps rather than helps us to understand another worldview. In Buddhism,
this is called "the impediment of what is known."
It may prove more
salutary to allow Buddhism to "rub us the wrong way" - to challenge
our preconceptions and habitual ways, to remain strange and different from anything
to which we have been accustomed. To borrow a metaphor from Henry Clarke Warren,
we might enjoy a "walking in Fairyland" in shoes that do not quite fit:
large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism has
arisen from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All
the ideas, the modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about,
have always seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been
accustomed, that I felt all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the
charm that the Oriental thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they
so seldom fit into Western categories. 4
1 ArthurWaley, The Way And Its
Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (New York:
Grove Press, 1958), 47.
2 ibid, 58.
3 James Legge, Confucius: Confucian
Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean [Translated by James
Legge], (New York: Dover, 1893, 1971), 4-7.
4 Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism
In Translations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1896), 283-84.