Buddhism and Science
August 10, 1988
Revised excerpt from Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten.
Glimpse of Reality.
Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.
Could you speak more about the relationship between Buddhism and science, and
give some specific examples of points that they share in common?
dialogues between Buddhist masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and scientists
have focused so far primarily on three areas. One is astrophysics, concerning
primarily how the universe developed. Does it have a beginning? Was it created
or is it part of an eternal process? Another topic is particle physics, regarding
the structure of atoms and matter. The third is neurosciences, about how the brain
works. These are the main areas.
One of the conclusions that both science
and Buddhism reach in common is that there is no creator. In science, the theory
of the conservation of matter and energy states that matter and energy can neither
be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Buddhists totally agree and extend
the principle to mind as well. "Mind" in Buddhism means awareness of
phenomena - either conscious or unconscious - and awareness of phenomena can neither
be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Thus, rebirth is simply a transformation
in the ongoing continuity of an individual's awareness of phenomena, but now with
the physical basis of another body.
Particle physicists emphasize the role
of the observer in defining anything. For example, from a certain point of view,
light is matter; from another point of view, it is energy. What type of phenomenon
light exists as depends on many variables, particularly on the conceptual framework
the investigator is using to analyze it. Thus, phenomena do not exist inherently
as this or that from their own sides, unrelated to the consciousness that perceives
Buddhism asserts the same thing: what things exist as depends on the
observer and the conceptual framework with which the person regards them. For
example, whether a certain situation exists as a horrible problem or as something
solvable depends on the observer, the person involved. If somebody has the conceptual
framework, "This is an impossible situation and nothing can be done,"
then there really is a difficult problem that cannot be solved. However, with
the frame of mind that thinks, "This is complicated and complex, but there
is a solution if we approach it in a different way," then that person is
much more open to try to find a solution. What is a huge problem for one person
is not a big deal for another. It depends on the observer, for our problems do
not inherently exist as monstrous problems. Thus, science and Buddhism come to
the same conclusion: phenomena exist as this or that dependent on the observer.
Similarly, neurologists and Buddhists both note the dependently arising relationship
of things. For example, when the neurologists examine the brain in an attempt
to find what makes our decisions, they find that there is no separate "decision-maker"
in the brain. No little person called "me" sits inside the head, receiving
information from the eyes, ears and so on, as if on a computer screen, and makes
decisions by pushing a button so that the arm does this and the leg does that.
Rather, decisions are the results of complex interactions of an enormous network
of nerve impulses and chemical and electrical processes. Together, they bring
the result, a decision. This happens without there being a distinct entity that
is a decision- maker. Buddhism emphasizes the same thing: there is no "me"
which is permanent and solid sitting in our heads, which makes our decisions.
Conventionally, we say, "I'm experiencing this. I'm doing that," but
actually, what occurs is the result of a very complex interaction of many different
factors. Science and Buddhism are very close in this regard.
is time? As students, we need to be on time for lectures and to have sufficient
time to prepare for our studies or fulfill our responsibilities at work. How can
we understand time in order to make life easier?
Answer: Buddhism defines
time as "a measurement of change." We can measure change in terms of
the motion of the planets or the position of the sun in the sky. We can measure
it in terms of how many lectures we go to in a semester ? we have gone to twelve
and two more are left ? or we can measure it in terms of physical, bodily cycles
? the menstrual cycle, the number of breaths we take, and so on. These are different
ways of measuring change and time is simply a measurement of change.
does exist, but according to how we think of it, time affects us differently.
For example, we think, "I only have one day left before the exam!" Because
we are thinking of time in a small number, we get anxious because we do not have
enough time. If we think of it in a different way, "There are twenty- four
hours left," then there seems to be ample time to do some preparation. Psychologically,
it depends on how we look at it. If we view time as something solid and oppressive,
we will be overwhelmed by it and will not have enough time. However, if we look
at it openly, as how much time we have, we will try to use it constructively,
instead of becoming upset.
Question: Buddhism emphasizes logic and reasoning.
Is there a certain point, as in other religions, at which a leap of faith is necessary?
Answer: Buddhism does not require that. We can see this from the Buddhist
definition of what exists. What exists is defined as ? that which can be known.?
If it cannot be known, then it does not exist, for example, rabbit horns, turtle
hair, or chicken lips. We can imagine human lips on a chicken; we can imagine
a cartoon drawing of lips on a chicken; but we can never see chicken lips on a
chicken because there is no such thing. It does not exist because it cannot be
This implies that everything that exists can be known. It is possible
for our minds - namely, our mental activity of awareness of phenomena - to encompass
everything. There are statements in the scriptures saying that the absolute is
beyond the mind and beyond words. Firstly, I do not like to translate the term
as "absolute" in English because it gives the connotation that it is
beyond us, as if it were something up in the sky. Instead, I prefer to translate
it as "the deepest fact about things." The deepest fact about things
does exist. It is beyond mind and beyond concepts and words in the sense that
it is beyond our usual ways of perceiving things. Language and conception imply
that things exist in black and white categories. Good person, bad person, idiot,
genius ? the implication of using language is that things actually exist in such
well-defined, independent categories: "This is a dumb person. He cannot do
anything correctly." "This is a great person." Perceiving reality
is seeing that things do not exist in these fantasized, impossible ways, in black
and white categories. Things are more open and dynamic. Someone may not be able
to do something now, but that does not mean that he or she is exclusively an idiot.
The person can be many other things - a friend, a parent, and so on.
when we say that the deepest fact about things is that they exist in a way that
is beyond mind and beyond words, we are referring to the fact that things do not
exist in the ways that concepts and language imply they do. Our minds are capable
of encompassing that.
It is not that our minds cannot encompass certain things
so we must make a leap of faith to believe in them. Buddhism never demands us
to have blind faith. On the contrary, Buddha said, "Do not believe what I
say just out of respect for me, but test it out yourself, as if you were buying
gold." That is true on all levels.
The logic of a particular point may
not be immediately obvious to us. However, we do not reject something just because
initially we do not understand it. By patiently learning and investigating, something
that we previously did not understand can start to make sense.