Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Buddhism and Modern Science

Convergence and Divergence of Buddhism and Modern Science
                                                                                                         -Geshe Dorji Damdul

                     H.H. the Dalai Lama in his science book 'The Universe in a Single Atom' says:

“I believe that spirituality and science are complementary
but different investigative approaches
with the same goal of seeking the truth.”

The world now a days has turned so small where all disciplines like science, philosophy and so forth are heavily interconnected to each other. No one discipline can stand independent anymore; Buddhism and science are no exceptions. While all these systems evolved with the primary purpose of rendering benefits to humanity, just as other systems, Buddhism and science also have enormous roles to play and strikingly more if they work hand in hand. The basis for the possibility of this vision and endeavor is that the two share a lot in common while exploring the reality and the methodology by resorting to rational thoughts, paying credence to empiricism and above all the openness to all possibilities of ideas and concepts.

The common approach of these two systems which very much accords with basic human nature and human intelligence indeed is what made these two the sources of hope for inner joy and prosperity for humankind. Buddhism is a medicine and aid for mental health and modern science for physical health and comfort. Given that we human beings are but psychophysical complex consisting of physical bodies and minds, we inextricably need both science and Buddhism.

For the two working closely, we need both sides to have a sound insight into the other discipline and more importantly the rigor to see through their similarities and their differences. New knowledge in the form of emergent properties will surely find ample room if the two are analyzed closely and in an unbiased fashion. They can mutually boost and even contribute towards further development of each other.

With this in mind, through the initiative of H.H. the Dalai Lama, Francisco Varela, a world celebrated neuroscientist, and Adam Engle, the Mind and Life Institute was founded in the year 1987. The institute generally holds conferences biannually where scientists and Buddhist scholar-practitioners meet for discussions to learn from each other and more importantly to study how the two systems each offer their own perspectives on the same topic. So far the areas of discussion have included
quantum physics, astronomy, cosmology, philosophy of science, neuroscience, biology/ evolution, cognitive science, psychology, dream science, economics and health sciences.

With the same initiative from H.H. the Dalai Lama, science workshops are given to young monk-scholars for more than 10 years. To the amazement of the Western teachers including some scientists, they found a great degree of sharpness of the monk-scholars when they pose questions in the classes. For sure this is due to their trainings in Buddhist logic and philosophy in the Monastic Universities. Finding a great light of hope in these young monks, through the advice of H.H. the Dalai Lama, science lessons are now on their way to being introduced as one of the formal subjects in the program of the major Tibetan Monastic Universities. These programs are being undertaken jointly by Emory University, USA and the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Driving motivation

Science owes its birth to the great thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and so forth, although their works are treated more as philosophy than pure science now a days. There exists an innate desire in the human mind to know the answers to the barrages of questions striking their consciousness. Some so peripheral as “Why vapors in a kettle lift the lid?” Others very sophisticated as “What could be the origin of Universe?” “Why are some objects in this world animate such as humans, while others are inanimate such as trees and rocks?” The surge in the desire for answers to these questions triggered the birth of modern science. This took the form of a gradual cumulative progression, which included numerous thinkers and experimentalists; the later ones refining and adding to the thoughts and findings of the formers.

Contrary to this, Buddhism came into being as a system in complete form within one person's lifetime, not something that evolved over many centuries. Overall speaking, it simply reflects the ideas of one historical enlightened being known as Shakyamuni Buddha. Its driving force is not simply to seek answers to any questions, but to a very specific one i.e., “What is the solution to all our problems?”

It is because of the difference, at least to some extent, in the motivating intention, of the two systems that science involves its search in matters, whereas Buddhism primarily with mind which forms the basis of our experience of pains and happiness. Given that the modern science deals with matter alone, it has its beauty in emphasizing the need for features such as quantifiable, repeatable, observable and empirical, without which a system is precluded from being a science.

Whereas Buddhism on the contrary, because it primarily espouses the study of mind, it may not emphasize the facets such as quantifiable and repeatable in order to qualify a principle as authoritative. Yet it has its own charms in profound and rigorous wisdom and experience in the world of mind and the depth of human knowledge of dependent origination and emptiness which now a days attract a great deal of attention of modern scientists particularly since the advent of Quantum mechanics and the Theory of Relativity.

However if one thinks closely, both are in search of reality, but from different dimensions. Some modern scholars consider Buddhism not as religion but a "science of mind" and by some as "Humanism." It is for the reason that Buddhism offers extensive and detail explanation of mind that it is referred to as science of mind. Because that the ultimate concept underlying all Buddhist treaties is grounded on the reality that the animals and particularly the human beings experience - least to do with dogma - it is described as Humanism.

This is well reflected in what the Buddha has said:

Just as the goldsmith testifies the purity of gold
By cutting, rubbing and burning,
So too should you examine my words and practice them
But not simply because you respect me.

It is the testimony of this single verse that the renowned scientists such as Albert Einstein were attracted towards the insight of the Buddha who said this almost 2600 years ago. Also during one of my personal encounters with a physicist in Cambridge, England who was full of skepticism, thinking that it was only science and particularly physics which was open to any questions and analysis, he was overwhelmed to hear what the Buddha has said (the stanza quoted above) and remarked with great admiration: “Oh! The Buddha must have been a great scientist.”

Einstein himself as well said: "Should there be any religion, which will go in hand in hand with science, it would be Buddhism."

Overview of Buddhism

Although vast and richly endowed with plural views, aspects, facets, H.H. the Dalai Lama so tacitly classifies the whole Buddhism into three categories - science, philosophy and spirituality.

Buddhist science:

In this section of Buddhism, there is extensive exploration into the reality of the world in which we the beings live in. Given that the reality or the world we live in comprises of the physical material world and the world of animate beings which are characterized by the presence of minds, Buddhism inquires into quite a detail about minute particles which constitute the material part of the world; analyzing if there ever exist subtlest particles which are part-less in nature. And as for the mind, there is comprehensive analysis into the complex and large array of classifications of mind or consciousness - course and subtle aspects, mind and mental factors, valid cognition and invalid minds, sense perception and conceptual thoughts, afflictive and non afflictive thoughts, their functions and so forth.

Buddhist philosophy:

On the basis of rather a fine understanding of Buddhist science, one then investigates into the infallibility of former and later lives and the law of karma on the basis of understanding the nature of mind as eternally self-perpetuating. This in turn fosters insight into the possibility of purifying the mental pollutants altogether thereby leading to the state of liberation and full enlightenment. Since mental pollutants, in the form of afflictive disturbing mental emotions, are rooted to the misconception of the reality of the world, the Buddha eventually pointed to the need to eradicate this misconception which is referred to as 'ignorance' for to achieve Nirvana - freedom from suffering. Just as in a child, to eliminate the ignorance over the alphabets, he or she needs to be introduced to the alphabets a, b, c and so forth to newly instill in them the knowledge, it is only through cultivating a proper knowledge of the reality which is directly in opposition to the ignorance that we can undermine the ignorance and suffering as its consequence. Thus, understanding what the reality is becomes crucial.

Ignorance, by its very definition, is characterized by having in it a disparity between reality and the appearance of the object. What is the appearance and what is reality? Reality is of two-fold - gross and subtle. Contrary to the reality which will be explained below is what and how things usually appear to us. The grosser level of reality constitutes the law of karma, the understanding of which helps remove the ignorance over the efficacy of karma and its results. This gives conviction in the person to engage in the practice of the ten virtuous actions, the result of which will be ripened in the form of favorable states. Whereas, the holistic concept of dependent origination/emptiness of independent existence is the final level of reality. This entails that nothing exists in real term as independently true. The wisdom which understands this level of reality undermines the ignorance which ensnares the sentient beings in samsara thereby leading the person to the state of freedom from suffering altogether. Thus the understanding of law of karma, dependent origination/emptiness and nirvana form some of the major topics which fall under the category of Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhist spirituality:

Venturing profoundly into the knowledge of Buddhist science and philosophy, one gains confidence into the possibility of achieving liberation from suffering. One is then able to integrate the actual path by cultivating the positive mental qualities and abandoning the negative ones, primarily through analytical meditation on the law of karma and dependent origination/emptiness, tempered by single-pointed meditation. Seeing that other sentient beings, just like oneself, suffer greatly, one engages in the practice of compassion and Bodhicitta in order to achieve the state of Buddhahood so to most efficiently help all sentient beings by shedding the light of wisdom upon them. The techniques of meditation and their associated rituals inclusive of the esoteric tantric skills to get along the path to liberation and Buddhahood constitute the Buddhist spirituality.


Both science and Buddhism rely on objective inquiries. Science emphasizes repetitive experiments, data and third person verification. Buddhism, on the other hand is based primarily on reasoning and experience whose verification involves both first and third person experience. This system of logic and experience is what keeps Buddhist concepts alive and unmodified even to this day. First person experience connotes an experience which, although real, is not precisely verifiable through repeated tests by another person. For example, when one has a very disturbing dream, it is not what someone else can so precisely predict what happened to you. It is only the person who had the dream that will understand the experience. Whereas third person experience includes those experiences which are precisely verifiable by another person. An example would be two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen, under a given situation, make one molecule of water. Everyone can understand this precisely just as the original discoverer found it.

Convergence and divergence between the two systems

Basically there are two classes of science: hard and soft. Hard science consists primarily of physics, chemistry and biology. Soft science consists of psychology, behavioral science, cognitive science and so forth. It is the Buddhist concept of ultimate reality and modern concepts of physics which are the areas to look for intersections or divergences, if any exist. This is not the case between Buddhism and biology, and neuroscience. In most cases the Buddhism and neuroscience overlap each other in their explaining mind and its functions. It is like one discipline explaining the same coin from the side of the head and the other on the basis of the tail. However the two can be great aids to one another which will be touched upon later. As for chemistry and Buddhism, there is nothing pertinent to discuss.

The dawn of modern physics marks a new light of compatibility between science and Buddhism. It was Einstein (1879 - 1955) who started formulating the Special and General Theory of Relativity to explain the macro-world. Quantum physics, as expounded primarily by Niels Bohr (1885 - 1962), came into being with enchanting explanations of the micro-world of subatomic particles and waves. Currently these two theories don't go compatible with each other. Roger Penrose, one of the leading physicists and mathematicians in the world today, in his book, 'The Large, the Small and the Human Mind', says: “The fact that they (the laws which govern the small-scale behaviour of the world and those which govern the large-scale behaviour of the world) seem to be so different, and what we might have to do about this seeming discrepancy, is central to the subject of the Chapter 3 – which is where the human mind comes in.”

Before exploring the points of comparison between the Buddhist concept of ultimate reality and Physics’ concept of the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, it would be helpful to have some introduction to the Buddhist concept of dependent origination. The Buddha taught this on varying levels and thus can be interpreted in different ways. Depending on the facet by which one explains this concept of dependent origination, the compatibility with the above two mentioned theories of science can be seen.

Dependent origination can broadly be interpreted on three levels:

1) Dependent origination of causality

Everything which operates and sustains through dependence on their causes and conditions, fall in this category. Where there is adequate amount of water, soil, manure and healthy seeds, there are rich crops growing. The crops here are the results which we seek to have. And the other factors like water, soil, seed and so forth are the causes. The relationship that we see between the causes and their results is known as dependent origination of causality. This is relatively an easy concept, and is unanimously accepted and well comprehended by all the four Buddhist schools of thought along with people who may not necessarily be familiar with the study of philosophy.

2) Dependent origination of parts and whole

The second level of dependent origination is found explained only in the two higher Buddhist schools of thought - Mind Only and Middle Way school. It highlights the relation between parts and the whole. A person, if one examines well, is a psychophysical complex. The physical body and the mind are the parts of the person and not the person. Yet we cannot have a person which stands distinctly as a monolithic entity aside from these parts. The whole, in this case the person, is simply posited to be existent by dependence on its parts – the body and mind. This relationship is so evident when we say and think, “I am in pain.” Although it is your arms which are in pain and the arms are not you. Here we see how I as the 'whole' is imputed in dependence on my parts - the arms. Likewise, you are so happy and excited to see your beloved parents after a long time apart. It is your mind which feels happy and excited and your mind is not you. This entails you as a 'whole' coming into being by dependence on its parts like your mind. But our innate experience feels that there is a self totally independent of its parts. This misconception, though relatively gross, creates lots of mental disturbance and unease in us. One needs bit of reflection to gain insight into this reality of the 'whole' depending on its 'parts.' This understanding can be helpful in keeping us calm from the outburst of emotions such as fear and anxiety.

3) Dependent origination through mere imputation

This level of dependent origination is the subtlest and the ultimate purport of the Buddha's teaching. To some extent, we can say the understanding of this level of dependent origination is the progressive enhancement of the first two. When we see a seed growing to a shoot, the seed is the cause and the shoot the result. Unlike the causal relationship explained in the first category, where the result depends on the cause, the third level of dependent origination renders a subtler level of understanding where there is a reverse order of dependence between the cause and the result, i.e., the cause depends on the result not just the result depending on the cause. We might feel uneasy if we were to think of this reverse relationship which is the seed's dependence on the shoot or the result. This sounds so ridiculous to the ears of ordinary people who are least introduced to such concepts. However, without the seed's dependence on the shoot, the causal relationship between the seed and the shoot itself will make no sense. The seed, of course, does not depend on the shoot in the sense it is given rise to by the shoot which is its result. It still depends on the shoot but in a subtle sense. Without the presence of the shoot or the result, the seed can not be designated as a cause of something. For example, although a man is not the product of his child, but would not be called a father without the child existing.

In a similar manner, things come into existence relationally. The boy 'B' who is 16 years old is designated as old in relation to boy 'A' who is just twelve years old. But he is young in relation to the boy 'C' who is 20 years old. This sounds quite simple. But our innate mind does not even know this. We are constantly being fooled and deceived by our mind through the appearance of characteristics such as beauty, unattractiveness and so forth which seem to exist so independently and non-relativistically. All characteristics like beauty, taste, joyfulness, pleasantness, sadness, hopelessness, and so forth make no sense at all unless one understands them in relation to something else.

Even more striking, which of course is really profound and obscured to laities, is how things come into existence simply in relation to the mind to which it appears. The existence of the mind as well depends on the object it is perceiving. Subjects and objects exist through mutual dependence. This is really so obscured and yet utterly profound. Understanding this view in its depth can release us from the pangs of samsara. This wisdom gives rise to a natural flow of compassion and empathy towards all beings, which in turn creates a peaceful atmosphere wherever you go. This is the ultimate answer to the basic question: “What is the solution to all our problems?” And it is for the purpose of teaching this level of reality to sentient beings, that the Buddha Shakyamuni appeared on this earth.

Buddhist philosophy and the Theory of Relativity

Going back to the actual discussion of where science and Buddhism meet, the theory of relativity addresses reality in the form of relativistic world, where both space and time are relative. Through explaining the idea of time dilation, where the concept of time is addressed only relatively in relation to a frame of reference with the help of the famous twins paradox example, it left Newtonian physics outdated. This idea is truly profound. It is believed that there were only three persons on this earth who understood this concept when Albert Einstein first came up with it. Whereas in Buddhism, as described above in the third level of dependent origination, everything exists relatively and time is no exception. Things can only be spoken of relativistically, in relation to something else. The reflection on this concept dismantles our innate absolutist view, which underlines all disturbing thoughts present in us. This understanding is the key to solve all our mental disturbances.

Buddhist philosophy and the Quantum Theory

Quantum Theory, on the other hand, brings in a very interesting issue with regard to how things exist. Especially Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Schrodinger's cat experiment delineate a revolutionary description of the concept of randomness in the nature of reality. While classical physics maintained the idea more deterministic in nature as opposed to randomness and uncertainty, quantum mechanics rejected it fully by introducing this new concept on the level of subatomic particles like electrons. Simply put, the description of electrons and their spin makes no sense, according to quantum physics, unless one brings into consideration the observer of the object. In the language of laity, it means objects cannot exist on their own independent of the observer. The famous statement, “Does the moon exist when no one looks at it?” gives a clear picture of this idea. Of course, Einstein was not happy with this and refuted the idea through his famous statement, “God does not play dice.”

So, where does the concept of quantum theory stand from the Buddhist perspective? Does it fit into any Buddhist theory? If yes, in which? And what would be the response from Buddhism towards Einstein's not being happy with Quantum theory's idea of randomness?

In fact, the whole essence of quantum theory, for the convenience sake of the discussion here, I will break into two – that the objects will bear a sense only when they come in contact with an observer, and the concept of randomness where knowing of an object in the previous moment, by no means, can help predict precisely the state of the object, say an electron, in the next moment, e.g. whether the spin of a particular electron will be 'up' or 'down' the next moment is what we can not infer on the basis of the information we have of the same electron a moment ago. Again if we go back to reflect on the concept of dependent origination on the third level, all objects exist merely through mental imputation implying there is nothing existing objectively, independent of the subjective mind. Quantum theory has a great resemblance with this level of dependent origination. The two may differ in the usage of the terminology. Buddhism calls 'the imputing mind' and quantum mechanics calls 'the observer' to the subjective agent upon which the object depends for its existence. Raja Raman, a celebrated Indian nuclear physicist, once during a meeting with H.H. The Dalai Lama, remarked with great astonishment, “The concept of quantum theory which the scientists discovered for not more than hundred years is what Nagarjuna (2nd Cent. AD), a Buddhist master has already elucidated so well since thousand years ago.” In this respect, quantum theory goes well in conformity with Buddhism. Still we have lots to explore if the two exactly converge in their understanding or there still remain subtle nuances to tease apart in their theses.

If the understanding of the concept of ‘randomness’ as intended by the quantum theorists tallies with how it is understood by Einstein, the causes are not accountable for their respective results. Buddhism would surely have reservations towards this concept as it utterly contradicts the principle of dependent origination on the first level – which is law of causality – as pointed out above. Which means Buddhism conforms to Einstein's rebuttal to the idea of randomness. Future will tell if there is going to be a paradigm shift happening in quantum theory in the reading of what it meant by randomness, which usually happens in science, or the gab in the understanding between the two systems will remain forever long.

Buddhist Psychology and Neuroscience

Now let us see what brain science and Buddhism have to say. Do they go in parallel to each other or are they divergent?

The two disciplines, in general, on the level of gross mental functions, explain the same phenomena from two different perspectives. It is more on the experiential level that Buddhism articulates the workings of mind. Neuroscience on the other hand attempts to explain the same mental phenomena, as best they can, purely on the basis of tangible neurons, transmitters, ions, electrical impulses and so forth. There are areas, particularly the workings of the subtle mental states, where Buddhism offers candid explanations, which remain oblivious to the present neuroscience. Brain science, of course, is presently still quite primitive in the face of the prospect of its sparkling future development.

From the ongoing present collaborative works of some renowned neuroscientists and Buddhist scholars /contemplatives happening at various renowned institutions such as the Mind and Life Institute, Stanford University, Wisconsin University, and Emory University all in the US and Oxford Center for Mindfulness Studies in UK, we are witnessing how the Buddhist understanding of the taxonomy of mind and the complexities of the workings of mind can help guide neuroscientists to go through faster pace and greater expanse of research and experiments. The former gives wonderful directions to the neuroscience. Equally, neuroscience, through their undeniably observable and immaculately precise research, while ushering new outlooks for the Buddhist contemplatives and scholars on mind renders confirmation and confidence in the already existing rich knowledge on mind which the Buddha taught almost 2600 years ago. Eric Kandel's (2000 Nobel Laureate in Medicine) book, 'In Search of Memory' is one such exemplary piece. We thus find mutual benefits and assistance rather than there existing any points of convergence or divergence.

Neuroscience at present attempts to explain on the level of neurons, synapses and transmitters, the obvious mental activities like memory, perceptions of color, language, responses and so forth - some of the basic human characteristics - which the human beings are so well aware of. The activities and functions of these neurons that the scientists found so far are unquestionably very subtle, but the mental activities that they represent are coarse and manifest, with least complexities and multiplicities. They are still in the middle of their ordeal with the prospect of refined experiments and findings with respect to the subtler and more sophisticated workings of the mind. The reader of this essay, for example, is vividly aware of his or her reading this article at this moment and actively thinking about the subject matter of this, but has no clue of the dynamics of the same on the brain level that is accountable for your mental processes which are associated with this reading, registering and imbibing; how the transmitters of which axon of the neuron are sent to which other neuron, what kind of transmitters - whether in the form of ions or electrical signal - are sent and so forth. There are all too obscured to us the science laities. Whereas neuroscience explains it so well. This is the success of the modern neuroscience. It is indeed a great achievement of humanity.

Yet, they are presently, still in a period where they make more speculative explanations than provide convincingly coherent accounts to address the challenging questions such as, “What is the nature of experience?” “Can the content matter of the thoughts of a person be precisely read through seeing the observable neuron activities with MRI image and so forth? Say a neuro-scientist tries to read and explain the content matter of a particular thought of a person on the basis of what he sees of the neuronal activities. Is the mental picture formed in the said thought identically seen by the scientist? Obviously not! It is what he speculated and inferred as very likely mental image formed when he sees a particular brain activity. He is capable of doing this through training by conducting the same test earlier on another person by asking her what thoughts are coming when he either touched a specific spot of her brain or saw a specific neuronal activity. While one may rightly claim that mental activities can be inferred through brain activities which we can see by our own eyes through the use of sophisticated instruments, but what we saw directly is the brain activities and not the mental activities. The latter was simply inferred and can be experienced only by that person being tested. This in itself is indicative of the two's (brain and mind) being not identical. The mind is thus not reducible to brain. Whereas many neuroscientists who limit themselves of their understandings to physical tangible objects for their researches believe that the mind is reducible to brain; in simple words they think mind is just brain. This further leads them to believe that there is no rebirth. Indeed it would be helpful for them and us all to understand the distinction between 'Seeing the nonexistence of rebirth' and 'Not seeing the existence of rebirth.' Presently when the neuroscience is still in the stage of maturing, the involved scientists and those non-believers can at the most say, “We can not see the existence of rebirth.”

The discussion does not end there. For Buddhists, it is their wider understanding of such a mind which is distinct from the brain that lends to their espousing the idea of rebirth. Whereas brain-science on the other hand, as mentioned earlier, at least up to now, does not address this issue of rebirth as their discipline so far limits their exploration within the bounds of tangible brain and not beyond. However, given that there is active exchanges happening now a days between the two disciplines, the dawn of expanding their scope might soon uncover many of the questions which remain unresolved.

Ethical considerations

His Holiness in his "Universe in a Single Atom" strongly suggests the need for modern science to be tempered by ethical considerations; it can potentially be of more harm than good. For example, genetic science, which has made huge contributions to humanity, is neutral per se on the question of ethics and benefit. Unless it is motivated ethically and wisely, this intelligence can be used in a viciously hazardous manner with the least consideration for the feelings of the lives involved in their research and experiments. One such area is the partial human beings which the genetic scientists might very likely create if there is no moral constraints and using their biological organs so selfishly and mercilessly as therapeutic means at the cost of many lives. The world citizens need to be prudent. We have witnessed the disaster of the Second World War, unimaginably evil which exhibited the consequence of sheer misuse of modern science. Let us not destroy ourselves; instead with the astounding wisdoms of science and Buddhism, extend our arms to all beings with warmth and unconditional love.


Recommended books on dialogues between Science and Buddhism:

H.H. the Dalai Lama: The Universe in a Single Atom
H.H. the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman: Emotional Awareness.
The list of the books from the past Mind and Life conferences:
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain
The Dalai Lama at MIT
The New Physics and Cosmology
Destructive Emotions
Visions of Compassion
Healing Emotions
Consciousness at the Crossroads
Gentle Bridges
Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying