Buddhism and science: Wikis


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Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible, and Buddhism has increasingly entered into the ongoing 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.

With a special focus on the nature of mind and its implications for the concept of reality, Buddhism offers explanations for metaphysical issues within psychology and studies of consciousness. 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.

Buddhism has been described as rational and non-dogmatic, and there is evidence that this has been the case from the earliest period of its history [2], though some have suggested this aspect is given greater emphasis in modern times and is in part a reinterpretation.[3] 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[4], devotional traditions,[5] supplication to local spirits, and various superstitions.[6] 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.[7]


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."[8]

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.[9]

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.[10] However, some scientists are concerned by the popular coverage given to Buddhism's applications in neuroscience, believing that it will open up the field to mysticism.

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 scepticism 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 Walron on this topic.

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. In his text, Varieties of Religious Experience, James also promoted for modern psychology the functional value of meditation.[11] He wrote: "This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now."[12]

Buddhism and linguistics

The Buddhist ideas of emptiness, impermanence and dependent arising have much in common with ideas within the Cognitive Linguistics school of thought such as subjectivity, cognitive grammar ("meaning is conceptualization") and frame semantics.

Buddhism and philosophy

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of Buddhism in terms of western philosophy:

We find the doctrine of metempsychosis, springing from the earliest and noblest ages of the human race, always spread abroad in the earth as the belief of the great majority of mankind, nay, really as the teachings of all religions with the exception of that of the Jews and the two which have preceded from it: in the most subtle form, however, and coming nearest to the truth, as has already been mentioned, in Buddhism.

It almost seems that, as the oldest languages are the most perfect so also are the oldest religions. If I were to take the results of my philosophy as a yardstick of the truth, I would concede to Buddhism the pre-eminence of all religions of the world.

Buddhism as "science"

Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka describes Buddhadharma as a 'pure science of mind and matter'[13]. He claims Buddhism uses precise, analytical philosophical and psychological terminology and reasoning. Goenka's presentation describes Buddhism not so much 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 — a personal path from misery to the bliss of nirvana — is a turning towards the reality of things as they are right now and understanding reality directly. Though it is debated the degree to which these investigations are metaphysical or epistemological.

Notable Scientists on Buddhism

Einstein did comment that Buddhism "contains a much stronger element of [the cosmic religious feeling, by which] the religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished."[14]

Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961), Austrian theoretical physicist, best known for his discovery of wave mechanics, which won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933, wished to see: "Some blood transfusion from the East to the West" to save Western science from spiritual anemia."

David Bohm, who had a series of meetings with the Dalai Lama, was impressed with Eastern transcendental practices:

[M]editation would even bring us out of all [the difficulties] we've been talking about. . . [S]omewhere we've got to leave thought behind, and come to this emptiness of manifest thought altogether. . . In other words, meditation actually transforms the mind. It transforms consciousness.[15]

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.[16]

British mathematician, philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Alfred North Whitehead (co-author, with Bertrand Russell, of Principia Mathematica, widely considered by specialists in the subject to be one of the most important and seminal works in mathematical logic and philosophy) declared, "Buddhism is the most colossal example in the history of applied metaphysics."[17]

Bertrand Russell, another Nobel Prize winner, discovered a superior scientific method—one that reconciled the speculative and the rational while investigating the ultimate questions of life:

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.

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

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. [18]

See also


  1. ^ Yong, Amos. (2005) Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (review) Buddhist-Christian Studies - Volume 25, 2005, pp. 176-180
  2. ^ http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/kalama1.htm
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Journal of Buddhist Ethics A Review of Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka
  5. ^ Safire, William (2007) The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge ISBN 0-31237-659-6 p.718
  6. ^ Deegalle, Mahinda (2006) Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka ISBN 0-79146-897-6 p.131
  7. ^ "The Neuroscience of Meditation." November 12, 2005 speech given by the Dalai Lama
  8. ^ Rahula & Demieville (1974) pp.2-3
  9. ^ Robin Padilla (2008) Karma and the Cortex in Berkeley Science Review
  10. ^ Christina Reed, "Talking Up Enlightenment." Scientific American, 6 February 2006.
  11. ^ William James, Varieties of Religious Experience. (1902; New York: Viking Penguin, 1982).
  12. ^ David Scott, "William James and Buddhism: American Pragmatism and the Orient," Religion 30 (2000): 335.
  13. ^ [1]
  14. ^ Albert Einstein, "Religion and Science". New York Times Magazine, 9 November 1930 reprinted in Ideas and Opinions, ISBN 0-517-00393-7, p. 36.
  15. ^ Bohm pp. 103-104
  16. ^ 1958 Neils Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, (edited by John Wiley and Sons, 1958) p. 20.
  17. ^ Whitehead, Alfred North. (1996). Religion in the Making: Lowell lectures 1926. ISBN 0-823-21645-4, pg. 50.
  18. ^ J. R. Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, (Oxford University Press, 1954) pp 8-9.

Further reading

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Richard H. Jones, Science and Mysticism: A Comparative Study of Western Natural Science, Theravada Buddhism, and Advaita Vedanta (Bucknell University Press, 1986), ISBN 0108387500931 (Paperback ed., 2008)
  • 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
  • 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)

External links



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