Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind’s place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.
(P.A. Payutto, ‘Towards Sustasinable Science,’ p. 5)
The Venerable P.A. Payutto is probably the most well known & respected Buddhist scholar in Thailand. He is also a Buddhist monk. He has written many outstanding works on various aspects of the Buddhadharma, one of the most interesting being ‘Towards Sustainable Science,’ from which the quotations are taken in this article. In the above-quoted segment, he argues that, in essence, Buddhism and science are not in conflict, as the latter is concerned with knowledge regarding the natural order of things, which Buddhism has also been concerned with since its founding over two and a half thousand years ago.
But what is this ‘natural order’ that P.A. Payutto writes of? In Buddhist terms, the natural order is the law of karma and rebirth, the fact that every thought, word, and deed has a result. Now, science has not (yet) verified rebirth as an observable fact, but as to the idea of cause and effect, science is largely in agreement with the Buddhist teachings. Every action has a reaction, however infinitesimal the latter may be. In other words, what goes up must come down: Sir Isaac Newton was very much acting in the spirit of Buddhism when he developed the theory of gravity.
It is the fusion of science & Buddhism that Venerable Payutto points to that is so intriguing. He suggests that scientific discoveries and the technologies that come out of them can complement Buddhism, rather than contradict it, or make it seem defunct. Need Buddhism and science be in conflict? As the scholarly monk acknowledges elsewhere in the book, science and the technologies that arise from it can be used to destructive ends, but then humanity has an almost limitless capacity to abuse anything. The misuse of scientific discoveries is due to greed, hatred, and delusion, not science itself.
As to the limits of science, many religionists are keen to indicate that it will soon reach a dead end, much as atheists claim of religion; in truth, we just don’t know how much more science will discover in the coming centuries. Religionists may be in for some seriously unpleasant facts to be revealed in relation to their central beliefs, with Buddhism no exception. How as Buddhists should we respond to this – with dogmatism or open-mindedness? Questions relating to the nature of consciousness are being probed by science, and in the realm of technology, new inventions are beginning to challenge what we commonly understand to be ‘self.’
Science has advanced so far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating about.
The idea of artificial intelligence comprising consciousness or some kind of ‘self’ are abhorrent to many people, attached to set notions of what makes a conscious being. It is a subject that religious people of various persuasions find uncomfortable, given the implications. Can an artificial form of consciousness be reborn, rise to heaven or be cast down to hell? (The Dalai Lama has toyed with this very idea.) Should we, therefore, approach such technologically-created minds with compassion?
Investigating the nature of self and consciousness have long been the concern of Buddhists, of course, and it is in this light that modern scientific discoveries regarding the mind and the universe can be understood with wisdom. As suggested in the following extract, it is our use of science and technology that causes so many problems in the world. Venerable Payutto cites the desire to conquer nature and drive for material wealth as the primary reasons for humanity’s rapid destruction of the natural world. These are forms of greed (for power and resources) and hatred (of material poverty), fueled by the delusion of selfhood.
Together with the development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now, with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment, it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind’s internal struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the past century of industrial development principally because of the influence of these two assumptions.
Industrial development has indeed had a catastrophic effect on the environment, as few people would now deny; recognizing the interdependence of all things, as science is now doing, confirms what Buddhism has taught us for thousands of years. How we treat our surroundings will have consequences for ourselves, our descendants, and all life on Earth. That humanity is only now becoming aware of the full implications of this interdependence illustrates that there is still a long way to go before we might be considered an ‘enlightened’ race. Enlightened, that is, not only in the scientific sense, but also the spiritual one.
Venerable Payutto has something to say on this, also, for he sees in future scientific discoveries the possibility that some religions at least will become unsustainable. Buddhism, as a religion that points to a deeper reality, a natural deeper reality, is in a position to continue to complement science, however. This vision of the merging of science and religion might disturb some, attached as they might be to certain opinions on the distinct natures of the sciences and religions, but in truth, it is the search for truth that lies at the core of all true religion and all true science. What do you, dear reader, make of Venerable Payutto’s views on Buddhism & science, particularly the idea that they are in a process of eventual unification in the light of the truth?
When science is finally able to arrive at the truth, to answer mankind’s ultimate questions, it will be perfected. Many religions will no longer be sustainable. Conversely, a religion, which points to the highest truth, to reality, will be in a position to unify with science. At that time science and religion will have reached another meeting point, their last one, where religion becomes science and science becomes religion, the division between the two gone forever.
Robert F. Spencer M.A., Ph.D.
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 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.
Is Buddhism The Most Scientific ?4.55SEEKER Monday, 14 December 2015 Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact ho...