Buddhism and science

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Buddhism Dharmachakra
Buddhism Dharmachakra

Buddhism and Science are considered by various commentators to be uniquely compatible .[1] While downplaying Buddhism's theological attributes, they assert that Buddhism contains philosophic and psychological teachings that share commonalities with modern scientific and philosophic thought, or they assert that modern Western thinkers were variously influenced by Buddhist concepts. An example of such a claim would be that 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 modern theories of 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][page needed]

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,[3] though some have suggested this aspect is given greater emphasis in modern times and is a minority reinterpretation of the tradition.[4][5] Historically, Buddhism encompasses so many types of beliefs and practices that most non-sectarian observers think it futile to try to assert any single coherent scriptural or philosophical description.[6] There are many examples throughout the Buddhist world of dogmatism, clericalism and the belief in the supernatural.[7] Nor, with the exception of Tibetan Buddhism, have all but a few schools of Buddhism been open to scientific discoveries. Buddhism is a varied tradition and aspects include fundamentalism,[8] devotional traditions,[9] and supplication to local spirits.[10] 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,[11] listed a "suspicion of absolutes" and a reliance on causality and empiricism as common philosophical principles shared between Buddhism and science.[12]

Buddhism and psychology[edit]

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.[14][15][16]

William James often drew on Buddhist ideas 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[edit]

Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka describes Buddhadharma as a 'pure science of mind and matter'.[21]

Notable scientists on Buddhism[edit]

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.[22]

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.[23]

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.[24]

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.[25]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ "Buddhist Scriptures: Kalama Sutta". Buddhanet.net. Retrieved 2013-03-04.
  4. ^ Flanagan, Owen (2011). The Bodhisattva's Brain. MIT Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-262-01604-9. Even if there is a minority movement that fits the bill of naturalized Buddhism in the sense that it dissociates itself from beliefs in supernatural and nonphysical phenomena, it does not follow that it really deserves to call itself Buddhism.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Thompson, Evan (January 2020). Why I Am Not a Buddhist. Yale University Press. p. 36. These central teachings aren't empirical; they're normative and soteriological. They're based on value judgments that aren't subject to independent empirical test, and they evaluate the world according to the desired goal of liberation. Although it's unquestionably true that Buddhism possesses a vast and sophisticate philosophical and contemplative literature on the mind. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam also possess sophisticated philosophical and contemplative writings about the mind.
  7. ^ Wright, Robert (2017). Why Buddhism is True. Simon & Schuster. p. 256l. Two of the most common Western conceptions of Buddhism -- that it's atheistic and that it revolves around meditation--are wrong; most Asian Buddhists do believe in gods, though not an omnipotent creator God, and don't meditate.
  8. ^ "Journal of Buddhist Ethics A Review of Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka". Buddhistethics.org. Archived from the original on April 16, 2009. Retrieved 2013-03-04.
  9. ^ Safire, William (2007) The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge ISBN 0-312-37659-6 p.718
  10. ^ Deegalle, Mahinda (2006) Popularizing Buddhism: Preaching as Performance in Sri Lanka ISBN 0-7914-6897-6 p.131
  11. ^ "Talking Up Enlightenment." Christina Reed Scientific American, 6 February 2006
  12. ^ "The Neuroscience of Meditation." November 12, 2005 speech given by the Dalai Lama
  13. ^ Reed, Christina (February 2006). "Talking Up Enlightenment". Scientific American. Vol. 294 no. 2. pp. 23–24. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0206-23. JSTOR 26061323.
  14. ^ Waldron, William S. (1995). How Innovative is the Ālayavijñāna?: The ālayavijñāna in the context of canonical and Abhidharma vijñāna theory. (accessed: Wednesday April 21, 2010).
  15. ^ Waldron, William S. (2002). Buddhist Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Thinking about 'Thoughts without a Thinker'. Source: [1] (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: [2], (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. pp. 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. ^ "Vipassana Research Institute". 13 July 2010. Archived from the original on 13 July 2010.
  22. ^ 1958 Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, (edited by John Wiley and Sons, 1958) p. 20.
  23. ^ ""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.
  24. ^ J. R. Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding, (Oxford University Press, 1954) pp 8-9.
  25. ^ Religion and Science (1930)[full citation needed]

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)
  • 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[edit]