Buddhism and Science:
Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason
Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven
Religion East and West, Issue 1, June 2001, pp. 77-97
Western interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, historically coincided
with the rise of modern science and the corresponding perceived decline of religious
orthodoxy in the West. Put simply: Modern science initiated a deep spiritual crisis that
led to an unfortunate split between faith and reason—a split yet to be reconciled.
Buddhism was seen as an "alternative altar," a bridge that could reunite the estranged
worlds of matter and spirit. Thus, to a large extent Buddhism's flowering in the West
during the last century came about to satisfy post-Darwinian needs to have religious
beliefs grounded in new scientific truth.
As science still constitutes something of a "religion" in the West, the near-
absolute arbiter of truth, considerable cachet still attends the linking of Buddhism to
science. Such comparison and assimilation is inevitable and in some ways, healthy. At
the same time, we need to examine more closely to what extent the scientific paradigm
actually conveys the meaning of Dharma. Perhaps the resonance between Buddhism and
Western science is not as significant as we think. Ironically, adapting new and unfamiliar
Buddhist conceptions to more ingrained Western thought-ways, like science, renders
Buddhism more popular and less exotic; it also threatens to dilute its impact and distort
Historians since the end of World War II, have suggested that the encounter
between East and West represents the most significant event of the modern era. Bertrand
Russell pointed to this shift at the end of World War II when he wrote, “If we are to feel
at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only
politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am
convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance.”
More recently, the historian Arthur Versluis, in a new book, American Transcendentalism
and Asian Religions (1993), pieced together five or six major historical views on this
subject, and presented this by way of conclusion:
However much people today realize it, the encounter of Oriental and Occidental
religious and philosophical traditions, of Buddhist and Christian and Hindu and Islamic
perspectives, must be regarded as one of the most extraordinary meetings of our age. . . .
Arnold Toynbee once wrote that of all the historical changes in the West, the most
important—and the one whose effects have been least understood—is the meeting of
Buddhism in the Occident. . . . And when and if our era is considered in light of larger
societal patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West,
the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world, will form a much larger
part of history than we today with our political-economic emphases, may think.
These are not isolated opinions. Many writers, scholars, intellectuals, scientists,
and theologians have proclaimed the importance of the meeting of East and West.
Occidental interest in the Orient predates the modern era. There is evidence of significant
contact between East and West well before the Christian era. Even in the New World,
curiosity and interchange existed right from the beginning, as early as the 1700s. One can
find allusions to Asian religions in Cotton Mather, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman,
and of course, more developed expressions in Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo
By the mid-twentieth century this growing fascination with Asian thought
led Arnold Toynbee to envision a new world civilization emerging from a convergence of
East and West. He anticipated that the spiritual philosophies of Asia would touch
profoundly on the three basic dimensions of human existence: Our relationships with
each other (social); with ourselves (psychological); and, with the physical world (natural).
What is the shape and significance of this encounter? What does Buddhism contribute to
the deeper currents of Western thought; and more specifically, to our struggle to reconcile
faith with reason, religion with science?
Science was already the ascendant intellectual sovereign when Buddhism made its
first serious entry on the American scene in the latter decades of the 19th century. A
World's Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the 1893 Colombian
Exposition in Chicago, brought to America for the first time a large number of Asian
representatives of the Buddhist faith. These missionaries actively and impressively
participated in an open forum with Western theologians, scientists, ministers, scholars,
educators, and reformers. This unprecedented ecumenical event in the American
heartland came at a most opportune time. America was ready and eager for a new source
of inspiration, ex orient lux, the 'light of Asia.'
By the 1890s America was caught in the throes of a spiritual crisis affecting
Christendom worldwide. Modern scientific discoveries had so undermined a literal
interpretation of sacred scripture, that for many educated and thoughtful people, it was no
longer certain that God was in his heaven and that all was right with the world. These
rapid changes and transformations in almost every aspect of traditional faith, had such
irreversible corrosive effects on religious orthodoxy, that they were dubbed, "acids of
modernity." They ate away at received convictions, and ushered in an unprecedented
erosion of belief. People like my grandparents, brought up with rock-solid belief in the
infallible word of God, found their faith shaken to its very foundations. It was as if
overnight they suddenly awoke to a new world governed not by theological authority but
by scientists. New disclosures from the respected disciplines of geology, biology, and
astronomy challenged and shattered Biblical accounts of the origins of the natural world
and our place and purpose in it. Sigmund Freud captured the spirit of the age well
when he said “the self-love of mankind has been three times wounded by science.” The
Copernican Revolution, continued by Galileo, took our little planet out of the center
position in the universe. The Earth, held to be the physical and metaphysical center of the
Universe, was reduced to a tiny speck revolving around a sun. Then Darwin all but
eliminated the divide between animal and man, and with it the "special creation" status
enjoyed by humans. Darwin, moreover, diminished God. The impersonal forces of
natural selection kept things going; no divine power was necessary. Nor, from what any
competent scientist could demonstrate with any factual certainty, was any Divinity even
evident—either at the elusive "creation," or in the empirical present. Karl Marx people
portrayed people as economic animals grouped into competing classes driven by material
self-interest. Finally, Freud himself characterized religious faith as an evasion of truth, a
comforting illusion sustained by impulses and desires beyond the reach of the rational
intellect. Nietzsche's famous declaration that “God is Dead” may have seemed extreme,
but few would have denied that God was ailing. And certainly the childhood version of a
personal, all-powerful God that created the world and ruled over it with justice and
omniscience was for many a comforting vision lost forever.
One of the lingering side effects of this loss has been the unfortunate disjunction
of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split
between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts
and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism. An
unwelcome spiritual and psychological legacy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
it is still very much with us today, something that haunts our psyches.
Much of today’s near-obsession with therapy in the West, and even the shift
toward psychologizing religion (including the “New Age” phenomenon) could be seen as
attempts to heal this deep sense of alienation. The pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey,
wrote: “The pathological segregation of facts and value, matter and spirit, or the
bifurcation of nature, this integration [i. e. the problem of integrating this] poses the
deepest problem of modern life.” This problem both inspires and confounds
contemporary philosophy and religion. Wholeness eludes us while the split endures; and
yet, almost tragically, the very means we have available to heal it insure its continuation.
For, all of our philosophies, academic disciplines, therapies, and even religious traditions
are informed by and rooted in aspects of this dualism. Perhaps the most visible
expression of this pathological segregation is the gap between science and religion.
Thus, when the eminent philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead
scanned the broad outlines of our time, he wrote: “The future course of history would
center on this generation’s resolving the issue of the proper relationship between science
and religion, so fundamental are the religious symbols through which people give
meaning to their lives and so powerful the scientific knowledge through which we shape
and control our lives.” And it is in regard to this troubling issue, I think, that Eastern
religions, particularly Buddhism, are seen to hold out the promise of achieving some
resolution. The idea dates back over a hundred years.
After the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, one Paul Carus, a
Chicago-based editor of the Open Court Press, invited some of the influential Japanese
Buddhist delegates to a week-long discussion at the home of Carus's father-in-law,
Edward Hegeler. Both deeply felt the spiritual crisis of the times. Both were trying to
reform Christianity to bring it in line with current thought; in short, to make religion
scientific. It occurred to them that Buddhism was already compatible with science, and
could be used to nudge Christianity in the same direction. Toward this end, Carus wanted
to support a Buddhist missionary movement to the United States from Asia. His thinking
was to create something of a level playing field. Carus had witnessed the most ambitious
missionary undertaking in modern history that send thousands of Protestant missionaries
abroad to convert the people ‘sitting in darkness.' He wished to conduct a Darwinian
experiment of 'survival of the fittest." His goal: to bring Buddhist missionaries to
America where they could engage in healthy competition with their Christian
counterparts in the East, and thus determine the "fittest" to survive.
With the aid of his wealthy father-in-law who put up money, they sponsored a
number of Eastern missionaries to the United States: Anagarika Dharmapala, from what
was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka; Swami Vivekananda, from India representing the
Ramakrishna Vedanta movement; and Soyen Shaku, a Japanese Buddhist monk, and
Shaku's young disciple D.T. Suzuki. During his stay in the United States in the late 1890s
and early 1900s, Suzuki lived in the small town of LaSalle/Peru, Illinois. He was in his
twenties then, and for about eleven years he worked closely with Paul Carus translating
Buddhist texts into English and putting out inexpensive paperback editions of the Asian
classics. Suzuki later became the leading exponent of Zen in the West, when he returned
in the 1950s on a Rockefeller grant to lecture extensively at East Coast colleges. He
influenced writers and thinkers like Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Martin
Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, and the "beat Buddhists"—Jack Kerouac, Alan
Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo. His influence in the West was
profound—making Zen an English word, translating Asian texts into English, stimulating
a scholarly interest in the Orient among American intellectuals, and deepening American
respect and enthusiasm for Buddhism. The historian Lynn White Jr. praised Suzuki as
someone who broke through the "shell of the Occident" and made the West's thinking
global. His introduction to the West came about through the hands of Paul Carus.
These early missionaries of Buddhism to the West, including Carus himself, all
shared the same modern, reformist outlook. They translated Buddhism into a medium and
a message compatible and resonant with the scientific and progressive spirit of the Age.
They selectived passages of text to favor that slant, and carefully presented the Buddhist
teachings in such a way as to appeal to modern sensibilities—empirical, rational, and
liberal. Americans wanted religion to "make sense," to accord with conventional wisdom.
Then, as now, our primary mode of making sense of things was positivist—reliable
knowledge based on natural phenomena as verified by empirical sciences. So firmly
entrenched is the scientific outlook that it has for all practical purposes taken on a near-
religious authority. Few, then or now, critically question our faith in science; we presume
its validity and give it an almost unquestioned place as the arbiter of truth.
Thus, the early missionaries of Buddhism to America purposely stripped
Buddhism of any elements that might appear superstitious, mythological, even mystical.
Dharmapala, Suzuki, and Vivekananda clearly ascertained that Americans measured truth
in science, and science posed little theological threat to a Buddhist and Hindu worldview.
After all, Buddhism had unique advantages for someone who rejected their faith
(Christian) due to its authoritarianism and unscientific outlook:
1) Buddhism did not assert or depend upon the existence of a God
2) Buddhism was a superstition-free moral ideal; it conformed to the scientific view of an
ordered universe ruled by law (Dharma)—a system both moral and physical where
everything seemed to work itself out inexorably over vast periods of time without divine
3) Buddhism posited no belief in gods who could alter the workings of this natural law
4) Buddhism was a religion of self-help with all depending on the individual working out
his/her own salvation
5) "Original" Buddhism was seen as the "Protestantism of Asia," and Buddha as another
Luther who swept away the superstitions and rituals of an older, corrupted form and took
religion back to its pure and simple origins
6) Buddhism presented an attractive personal founder who led life of great self-sacrifice;
parallels were drawn between Jesus and Buddha as the inspiration of a personal figure
exerted strong appeal to seekers who had given up on theology and metaphysics.
Thus, Buddhism was packaged and presented in its most favorable light viz a viz
the current spiritual crisis in the West; and, not surprisingly, Buddhism seemed
immensely reasonable and appealing to Americans. Darwinism might be undermining
Biblical Christianity, but it only enhanced Buddhism's standing.
In fact, Darwin's theory of evolution, which struck the most severe blow to the
Judaeo-Christian edifice, was taken up as the leading banner for Buddhist propagation.
With Darwin the concept of evolution became enshrined in the popular mind. Everything
was evolutionary—species, races, nations, economies, religions, the universe—from the
micro to the macro. Social Darwinists even saw evolution operating behind the
vicissitudes of free-market capitalism. As the constant interaction of stimulus and
response in nature, evolution seemed to match nicely with the notion of karma—the
cyclical unfolding of events governed by the law of cause and effect. So Anagarika
Dharmapala could announce in Chicago to his largely Judaeo-Christian audience that "the
theory of evolution was one of the ancient teachings of the Buddha." As it was in nature
(at least in the new natural world of Darwin), so it was in the Buddhist universe.
Most people drawn to Eastern religions did not examine very closely the supposed
identity of Darwin's evolution and the Buddhist concept of karma. They were content,
even predisposed, to imagine them the same. Buddhists ardent to convert Americans to
Buddhism, as well as Christians eager to find some correspondence between modern
science and their beleaguered faith, were happy to say, “Yes, the similarities are close
enough; look, how the ancient Eastern religions anticipated our modern science!"
Vivekananda, the charismatic and eloquent Ramakrishna delegate from India, met only
hurrahs of affirmation when he proclaimed to a Chicago audience that the latest
discoveries of science seemed "like the echoes from the high spiritual flights of Vedantic
This facile view that Buddhism and science were cut of the same cloth accorded
nicely with the longing to reconnect the sacred and the secular. It held out hope that
religion could once again assume its rightful place alongside (if no longer in the lead of)
the emerging disciplines of biology, geology, and physics. It also fit neatly with the
presumed "unity of truth" that Victorians held to so dearly—there could only be one truth,
not two. The very nature of reality demanded that the truths of science and religion be
one and the same. Carus called his new system of thought "the Religion of Science,"
and Max Muller called his new theology "the Science of Religion."
This trend linking Buddhism to science continued, even accelerated, into the 20th
century. Einstein's work and further developments in the new cutting-edge physics
seemed to provide even further evidence that science and Buddhism were merely
different rivers leading to the same sea. Where the old theologies crumbled under the
juggernaut of science, Buddhism seemed to hold its own, even thrive. The early (and
even contemporary) exponents of Buddhism pushed this idea. It remains an area of great
promise and interest; but it is not one without difficulties.
One of the first to question this marriage, interestingly, was also one of its
earliest proponents, D.T. Suzuki. When Suzuki came to the United States to collaborate
with Paul Carus, both were outspoken advocates of the link between Buddhism and
science. Suzuki’s early writings make virtually no distinction between Buddhism and
science. For Suzuki, Buddhism was eminently modern and progressive, compatible with
the latest discoveries in Western psychology and philosophy. It was, in a word,
By the time Suzuki returned to the United States in the 1950s, however, he had
experienced a change of heart. He then wrote that his initial thinking—that religion must
be based on scientific grounds and that Christianity was based on too much mythology—
was a little ill-founded. An older, perhaps wiser Suzuki, came to doubt the sufficiency of
a religion based on science, and even saw the need for religion to critique science. In
1959, Suzuki wrote that his early modernist agreement with Hegeler and Carus that
"religion must stand on scientific grounds...Christianity was based too much on
mythology," was ill-founded. "If it were possible for me to talk with them now," he
reflected, "I would tell them that my ideas have changed from theirs somewhat. I now
think that a religion based solely on science is not enough. There are certain
'mythological' elements in every one of us, which cannot be altogether lost in favor of
science. This is a conviction I have come to."
What had changed? First of all, two world wars. As the contemporary writer Kurt
Vonnegut has wryly observed, “We took scientific truth and dropped it on the people of
Hiroshima.” Suzuki was, of course, Japanese; he felt directly the negative weight of
modern science. Having survived the brutal experience of a war initiated, carried out, and
ended with weapons of mass destruction born of modern science, he was left less
sanguine about the idyllic marriage with religion and science that he had heralded at the
turn of the century. Suzuki was enjoying the wisdom of hindsight; but in fairness to
Suzuki, so were many other people.
Since Suzuki's turnabout in 1959, there have been even further, more
fundamental challenges to the presumed closeness of Buddhism and science. Questions
have arisen in two areas. One, as a society we have come to reassess the blessings and the
promise of modern science in terms of the socio-psychological impact. While people are
mesmerized by science and dream about what science can do for them, they also have
nightmares about what science can do to them. This bittersweet realization lingers in the
contemporary psyche: we dream about all the wonderful things science is going to do for
us; at the same time we are haunted by unsettling specters of the dreadful things science
could do to us. This concern and troubling ambivalence seems to grow, not diminish,
with each scientific advance.
At the popular level, movies and television play on variations of the Frankenstein,
Godzilla, the X-Files motif, reflecting anxieties over science-gone-wrong. These
"monsters" give form (albeit imaginary) to some of humanity's deepest fears. They reflect
not only the apprehension of Pandora's box unearthed, but more significantly, the hubris
of human pride and lust for power unrestrained. Nowhere is this more evident than in the
new field of biotechnology—the actual manipulation of life at the subtle genetic source.
Scientists now talk of the end of evolution, the end of nature, in the sense that humans
will soon replace nature to direct the course of creation themselves. Doctor Panayiotis
Zavos, who is now actively engaged in producing the first human clone, announced
proudly, ``Now that we have crossed into the third millennium, we have the technology
to break the rules of nature.''
Thus, the development and unleashing of "advanced" weapons of mass
destruction through two World Wars, the Cold War, and now almost daily in "hot spots"
throughout the world; the unenlightened tampering with nature that has brought about
widespread environmental pollution; the almost cavalier experiments with human
reproduction, cloning, genetically engineered life, chemical-biological warfare—all
threaten to make reality more frightening than fiction.
The second area of doubt regarding modern science arises from within the
scientific community itself. The last decades of the 20th century have seen an internal
reexamination take place within almost every scientific discipline, as each has been
forced to question its own foundations and exclusive claims to truth. We are in the midst
of a major paradigm shift, the outcome of which still remains unclear. It revolves around
a loss of the positivistic certainty that science once enjoyed and now finds slipping away.
Ironically, the scientific "establishment" finds itself confronting a challenge to its
exclusive authority that in many ways mirrors the spiritual crisis that religious orthodoxy
faced with the triumph of modern science.
Sigmund Freud exemplifies this ironic shift. Perhaps more than any modern
thinker, he contributed to the undermining of religious certainty. He stated quite
unequivocally that “an illusion would be to suppose that what science would not give us,
we can get elsewhere.” Elsewhere, of course, refers to religion, as he made clear in his
pessimistic indictment of religion in The Future of an Illusion. And yet his own
psychoanalytic theory has become a matter of intense debate, and has come under the
critical scrutiny of the very scientific system he felt would validate his ideas. But it is in
areas other than psychology, most notably in physics, and increasingly in the life sciences,
that a growing body of new knowledge is beginning to strain existing models of
explanation and understanding.
With the ground-breaking work of Niels Bohr, Heisenberg, and Sir Arthur
Eddington, the rock-solid presupposition central to that classical scientific thought began
to crumble. With the "new science" that started to emerge in the post-World War II era,
the observer and the observed could not be presumed separate and distinct. Gone too was
the neat subject/object distinction that had come to define classical science. This shift
away from the study of the "outside" objective world of nature to the "inner" subjective
world of the observer is a hallmark of the new science. As Heisenberg observed, “Even in
science, the object of research is no longer nature itself, but man’s investigation of nature.”
For example, Heisenberg pointed out that the very act of measurement interfered
with what one was attempting to measure. You cannot separate the subject from the
object of the experiment. So, if the scientist changes the very nature of the "reality" he or
she investigates, then what is truth? What is purely objective fact? Where does the
boundary lie (indeed, if there is one) between the mind and the external world?
Consequently, the quantum theory of the new physics no longer claims to be describing
"reality." It describes probable realities. The new physics looks for possible realities and
finds them so elusive that no one model can exhaustively account for everything. The
indeterminacy of models has replaced earlier certainties.
Some, like Thomas Kuhn, even questioned the notion of science as an objective
progression towards truth. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn
observed that science, like religion, becomes heavily encumbered with its own baggage
of non-rational procedures. Science accumulates its peculiar set of presuppositions,
doctrines, and even heresies. Kuhn essentially demolished the logical empiricist and
purist view that science personified the impartial progression towards a universal truth.
Instead, he saw it as a series of shifting "paradigms"—a global way of seeing things
which is relatively immune from disconfirmation by experience. One paradigm would
hold sway for awhile, only to be displaced in a "revolution" by another conceptual
worldview. These paradigms, both self-contained and self-perpetuating, tended to
conserve and perpetuate their own ideas, just as religion tends to conserve and perpetuate
its own beliefs.
For example, Galileo declared in the early 1600s that Copernicus was correct: The
earth moves, and the sun is the center of our galaxy. The Church denounced these views
as heresies and dangerous to the Faith. They forced Galileo to recant during a trial under
the Inquisition. Although he was publicly compelled to affirm the existing "scientific"
paradigm, Galileo still defied the authorities. After getting up from his knees, he is said to
have mumbled "E pur si muove" (nevertheless it still moves). Placed under house arrest,
Galileo lived out the rest of his life in seclusion.
The world, of course, shifted paradigms to accept the Copernican worldview. The
Church, however, lagged behind, and only in 1992 did the Vatican lift the 1616 ban on
the Copernican teaching. Einstein, whose theory of relativity was at first met with
skepticism and doubt, later became an icon of scientific genius. And yet, even Einstein
found himself resisting the new theories of the quantum physicists towards the end of his
life—once again adding credibility to Kuhn's thesis.
Whether Kuhn is correct or not is beside the point. His critique illustrates a larger
trend: the suspicion that science does not have absolute answers, nor even ultimate
authority. Thus, modern science presents less of a unified front, less of a final bastion of
truth. Certainly many people still see themselves as living in a black and white world. But,
in general, many scientists are coming to define their discipline in a more humble and
tentative way. Science, for people at the turn of the century, stood for absolute, fixed
truths and principles that held good forever; it embraced and explained an unchanging
reality, or at least a reality that was changing according to constant and predictable laws.
Today we are more modest, less presumptuous. A better working definition of science
now might be “a form of inquiry into natural phenomena; a consensus of information
held at any one time and all of which may be modified by new discoveries and new
interpretations at any moment.” In contemporary science, uncertainty seems to be the rule.
Thus, it grows increasingly difficult to believe in an external world governed by
mechanisms that science discloses once and for all. Thoughtful people find themselves
hesitant, unmoored, with an up-in-the-air kind of feeling regarding the most basic facts of
life. It is said that "we live in an age when anything is possible and nothing is certain."
This post-modern dilemma highlights the felt need to reconcile facts and values, morals
and machines, science with spirituality. And while traditional Judaeo-Christian theologies
struggle to address this particularly contemporary malaise, Buddhism maneuvers this
tricky terrain with apparent ease and finds itself sought after with renewed interest and
Moreover, some observers have puzzled over this anomaly: Asia accelerates in its
secular and material modernization (read "Westernization"), while the West shows signs
of a spiritual revitalization drawing on largely Asian sources—especially Buddhism.
Buddhism is being 'Westernized' to be seen as a teaching that can mesh with both the
good life and mitigate the stress of the faith/reason divide. Part of Buddhism's immense
appeal lies in its analysis of the mind, the subject/self—exactly the area where modern
science now senses the next breakthroughs are to be made.
The Buddha, well before Aquinas or Heisenberg, stressed the primacy of the mind
in the perception and even "creation" of reality. A central concept of Buddhism is the
idea that "everything is made from the mind." Any distinction between subject and object
is false, imagined, at best an expedient nod to demands of conventional language. In
the Avatamsaka Sutra, the Buddha uses metaphor to elucidate: "The mind is like an
artist/It can paint an entire world. . . If a person knows the workings of the mind/As it
universally creates the world/This person then sees the Buddha/And understands the
Buddha's true and actual nature." (Chap. 20) We think we are observing nature, but what
we are observing is our own mind at work. We are the subject and object of our own
methodology. Moreover, this mind encompasses the entirety of the universe; there is
nothing outside of it, nothing it does not contain, according to the Buddha.
Such insights early on intrigued Western thinkers, as Buddhism hinted of a new
avenues of travel through the mind/matter maze. It led scientists like Albert Einstein to
The religion of the future will be cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and
avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be
based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual
and a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. . . If there is any religion that
would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.
The Nobel Prize winner was not alone in his positive assessment of the
Buddhism's potential for going beyond the boundaries of Western thought. The British
mathematician, philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared, "Buddhism is the most
colossal example in the history of applied metaphysics." His contemporary Bertrand
Russell, another Nobel Prize winner, found in Buddhism the greatest religion in history
because "it has had the smallest element of persecution." But beyond the freedom of
inquiry he attributed to the Buddha's teaching, Russell 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.
As early as the 1940’s, the pioneering physicist Niels Bohr sensed this
congruence between modern science and what he called “Eastern mysticism.” As he
investigated atomic physics and searched for a unified field of reality, he often used the
Buddha and Lao Tzu in his discussions on physics in his classes. He made up his own
coat of arms with the yin/yang symbol on it. The American physicist J. Robert
Oppenheimer also saw in Buddhism a scientific parallel to the puzzling riddles of modern
physics; his cutting-edge discoveries seemed to echo the enigmatic wisdom of the ancient
sage. Wrote Oppeheimer:
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.
In the 1970s, in The Tao Of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between
Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Fritjof Capra expanded on some of Bohr’s and
Oppenheimer's tentative impressions. He argued that modern science and Eastern
mysticism offer parallel insights into the ultimate nature of reality. But, beyond this,
Capra suggested that the profound harmony between these concepts as expressed in
systems language and the corresponding ideas of Eastern mysticism was impressive
evidence for a remarkable claim: That mystical philosophy offers the most consistent
background to our modern scientific theories.
In the 1970s this notion came as something of a bombshell. Suddenly religion and
science reunited—though in a rather unexpected way—Eastern religion and Western
science. This echoed the excitement of a hundred years previous that Carus and other late
Victorians sensed in Buddhism's potential. Then, however, the emphasis was on how
Buddhism could help establish religion on a more scientific basis; now, it seems the other
way around—that science is seeking Buddhism to stake out its spiritual or metaphysical
Regardless, those familiar with Buddhist texts immediately saw (or thought they
saw) the correctness of Capra's revelation. Certain Buddhist scriptures in fact seemed
most solidly to confirm the linking of science and Dharma. The most oft-quoted is the
famous teaching called the Kalama Sutta.
In this short discourse, we find the Buddha in his wanderings coming upon the
village of the Kalamas. Religious seekers themselves, the Kalamas were bewildered by
the plethora of divergent philosophies and teachers vying for their attention. They
proceeded to ask the Buddha a series of questions. Here is the relevant portion of the text:
The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala. The
inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama. When they heard that
the Buddha was in their town, the Kalamas paid him a visit, and told him:
"Sir, there are some recluses and brahmanas who visit Kesaputta. They explain
and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines.
Then come other recluses and brahmanas, and they, too, in their turn, explain and
illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines. But,
for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to who among these venerable
recluses and brahmanas spoke the truth, and who spoke falsehood."
"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."
The Kalamas voiced their doubts, their perplexity in determining truth or
falsehood, as a result of having been exposed to all the competing teachers and doctrines
of India at the time: not unlike our modern world today. Each teacher, each school,
expounded different and often conflicting notions of the truth. The Buddha's response
was to set down a methodology that was in many ways ahead of its time in anticipating
the skeptical empiricism of the modern scientific method.
He said, “Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the
authority even of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering
appearances”—all of which eliminate exclusive reliance on cultural convention, received
tradition, and deductive speculation, as well as mere sense impressions. Also rejected
were opinions and "seeming possibilities"—the stuff of preconceived bias and subjective
imagination and fancy. (Some might argue that being "led by appearances" would include
a narrow scientific method, at least as it has come to be popularly understood—i.e. an
exaggerated reliance on natural phenomena as the only basis of what is true or real. It
would also dismiss the equally exaggerated claim that scientific knowledge is the only
valid kind of knowledge.The Buddha even discounts blind faith in one's teacher.
So what's left? Here the Buddha lays out a subtle and quite unique epistemology:
“Oh Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and
wrong and bad, then give them up. And when you know that certain things are
wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.” But how to interpret this key
Many scholars and believers, both recently and at the turn of the century, jumped
at this passage as confirmation that ancient Buddhist wisdom validates modern science.
Early popularizers of Eastern religions in America like Anagarika Dharmapala, D. T.
Suzuki, Paul Carus, and even Vedantists like Vivekananda, generally waxed enthusiastic
about the compatibility of Eastern spirituality and Western science. They saw in passages
like the Kalama Sutta proof positive that the Buddha prefigured the modern scientific
outlook. Buddhism seemed eminently scientific: detached skeptical investigation of
empirically testable phenomena; no faith, no dogma, no revelation. Experiments carried
out by and confirmed by individuals regardless of time or place suggested
"intersubjective testability"—one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. I do it, you do
it; anyone can do it and obtain the same results. That Buddhism and science should be so
nearly identical was understandably immensely appealing; it is also misleading.
While American thinkers and newly converted Western Buddhists thought they
saw a natural fit between Buddhism and science, Buddhist teachers more steeped in the
traditional discipline were less apologetic and often more critical of such facile
comparisons. Two notable contemporary examples come to mind: Master Hsuan Hua,
from the Mahayana tradition, and Wapola Rahula, a Theravada scholar-monk, both threw
cold water on this notion.
The Venerable Hsuan Hua, a Ch'an and Tripitika master from China, arrived in
America in the early 1960s to propagate the Dharma in the West. As he observed and
studied the trends and currents of contemporary thought, he showed little enthusiasm for
what seemed to him the exaggerated claims of modern science—theoretical or applied.
He said, “Within the limited world of the relative, that is where science is. It’s not an
absolute Dharma. Science absolutely cannot bring true and ultimate happiness to people,
neither spiritually nor materially.” This is strong criticism that portrays science as a
discipline limited to relative truths, and as an unsatisfactory way of life. In another essay,
Look at modern science. Military weapons are modernized every day and are more and
more novel every month. Although we call this progress, it’s nothing more than
progressive cruelty. Science takes human life as an experiment, as child’s play, as it
fulfills its desires through force and oppression.
In 1989, Venerable Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin monk from Sri Lanka, also warned
that daily life is being permeated by science. He cautioned, “We have almost become
slaves of science and technology; soon we shall be worshipping it.” His comments come
well into the final decades of the twentieth century, when many people had in effect
turned science into a religious surrogate. The Venerable monk observed, “Early
symptoms are that they tend to seek support from science to prove the validity of our
religions.” Walpola Rahula elaborated on this point:
We justify them [i.e. religions] and make them modern, up-to-date, respectable, and
accessible. Although this is somewhat well intentioned, it is ill-advised. While there are
some similarities and parallel truths, such as the nature of the atom, the relativity of time
and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated whole, all these things
were developed by insight and purified by meditation.
Rahula's critique goes to the heart of the matter: the capitulation of religion to scientific
positivism; the yielding of almost all competing schemes of values to the scientific
juggernaut. Huston Smith, the eminent scholar on the worlds religions, recently said that
the weakness of modern religions in the West stems from their successful
accommodation to culture. The contribution that Buddhism and other religions can make
to the spiritual crisis facing modern society, therefore, may not lie in their compatibility
with science, but in their ability to offer something that science cannot.
More importantly, as Rahula argues, Dharma, or abiding spiritual truths, were
discovered without the help of any external instrument. Rahula concluded, “It is fruitless,
meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious truth. It is incongruous and
preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts to prove and support perennial
religious truths.” Moreover, he echoes the deeper moral concerns expressed by Master
Hua regarding the unexamined aims and consequences of the scientific endeavor:
Science is interested in the precise analysis and study of the material world, and it has no
heart. It knows nothing about love or compassion or righteousness or purity of mind. It
doesn’t know the inner world of humankind. It only knows the external, material world
that surrounds us.
Rahula then suggests that the value of Buddhism redoubles, not as it can be made to seem
more scientific, but in its reaffirming a different sensibility, an overarching and
unyielding vision of humanity's higher potential. He concludes emphatically:
On the contrary, religion, particularly Buddhism, aims at the discovery and the study of
humankind’s inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual. Buddhism is
a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals with humanity in total. It is a way of
life. It is a path to follow and practice. It teaches man how to develop his moral and
ethical character, which in Sanskrit is sila, and to cultivate his mind, samadhi, and to
realize the ultimate truth, prajna wisdom, Nirvana.
Both of these eminent monks pre-date and, in many ways, stand outside the
popularization and "Westernization" of Buddhism. Unlike the Western-leaning
translators of Buddhism Carus, Suzuki, Dharmapala, et al., they emerged from a monastic
discipline grounded in a more traditional understanding, one less enamored of modern
science and more critical of Western philosophy. They would not so readily concur with
Sir Edwin Arnold, who wrote in his best-selling Light of Asia (1879) that "between
Buddhism and modern science there exists a close intellectual bond."
With this in mind, it would do well to take another look at the passage quoted
above from the Kalama Sutta:
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.
These lines, I believe, hold the key to understanding the difference between
Buddhism and modern science. The passage needs to be understood not simply as a nod
to Western empiricism, but within a specific context of moral inquiry. This "knowing for
yourself" locates knowledge ('scientia') firmly within the moral sphere, both in its aims
and its outcomes. It employs a meditative form of insight to penetrate the ultimate nature
of reality. It implies a concept quite foreign to modern science: that the knower and what
is known, the subject and object, fact and value, are not merely non-dual, but that
knowledge itself is inescapably influenced by our moral and ethical being. Perhaps this is
exactly what Suzuki intuited was lacking in modern science when he wrote in 1959, "I
now think that a religion based solely on science is not enough. There are certain
'mythological' elements in every one of us, which cannot be altogether lost in favor of
Regardless, none of this critical reassessment should come as a surprise to
thoughtful Buddhists. The Shurangama Sutra clearly notes, "when the seed planted is
crooked, the fruit will be distorted." The close link between intention and result, cause
and effect, is central to all Buddhist philosophy. It should be obvious and expected that
the very fabric of modern science, lacking as it does a firm grounding in the moral sphere,
would result in deleterious discoveries and incomplete uses. Tragic examples abound
attesting to the ill-fated marriage of scientific technology and human ignorance.
Nor, from a Buddhist perspective, can these examples be seen as unintended
consequences or accidents—they are, rather, unavoidable and logical outcomes of a
partial though powerful system of thought. There is nothing in science per se that would
lead one to equate its advancement with increased social benefits and enhanced human
values. And certainly the absence of ethical imperatives should alert any knowledgeable
Buddhist to a fundamental flaw in equating the Eightfold Way with the practice of
science. In fact, a close reading of the Buddhist sources, it seems, would lead one to
question: Is science in itself sufficient for describing reality? Is it capable of meeting
Thus, the aforementioned Kalamas passage, depending on one's frame of
reference, could be seen more as a critique of than a correspondence with modern science.
The key to understanding this difference lies in a correct Buddhist interpretation of
"know for yourselves," "wholesome," and "unwholesome." As Walpola Rahula indicates,
these concepts are part of a specific and disciplined form or methodology of self-
cultivation which, when diligently practiced, leads to true knowledge and wisdom. This
method is referred to in Buddhism as the "three non-outflow science" (san wu lou xue),
and consists of morality, concentration, and wisdom (Sanskrit: sila, samadhi, prajna).
The ethical component cannot be overemphasized, as "seeing things as they really
are" entails an indispensable preliminary: "purification of the mind." This clarity of mind
and concentrated awareness in turn begins with and must be sustained by moral conduct.
The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), an early Buddhist manual compiled in the 4th
century by Buddhagosha, lists the Buddha's "science" of inquiry as an interrelated three-
step exercise of virtue, meditation, and insight. This is quite a different approach to
knowledge than a modern-day scientist would presume or pursue. It is interesting that
these ancient wisdom traditions considered moral purity as the absolute prerequisite of
true knowledge, and that we today regard it as immaterial, if not downright irrelevant.
Thus, fundamental and qualitatively different views of what constitutes knowledge and
the acquisition of knowledge separate Buddhism and science.
Aspects of the above epistemological formula appear throughout the Asian
religious traditions. For example, Taoism speaks of cultivating the mind (hsin), regarding
it as the repository of perceptions and knowledge—it rules the body, it is spiritual and
like a divinity that will abide "only where all is clean." Thus the Kuan Tzu (4 to 3rd
century B.C.) cautions that "All people desire to know, but they do not inquire into that
whereby one knows." It specifies:
What all people desire to know is that (i.e., the external world),
But their means of knowing is this (i.e. oneself);
How can we know that?
Only by the perfection of this. 1
Are we studying ourselves when we think we are studying nature? Will the "new
science" eventually come to Kuan Tzu's conclusion that only “by perfecting this," can we
truly know that? These ancient writings raise an interesting question: How accurate and
objective can be the observation if the observer is flawed and imperfect? Is the
relationship between "consciousness" and matter as distinct as we are inclined to believe?
The "perfection" mentioned above refers to the cultivation of moral qualities and
in Buddhist terminology, the elimination of "afflictions" (klesa) such as greed, anger,
ignorance, pride, selfishness, and emotional extremes. It seems less an alteration of
consciousness than a purification and quieting of the mind. Mencius talks of obtaining an
"unmoving mind" at age forty, again referring to the cultivation of an equanimity
resulting from the exercise of moral sense. He distinguished between knowledge acquired
from mental activity and knowledge gained from intuitive insight. This latter knowledge
he considered superior as it gives noumenal as well as phenomenal understanding.
Advaita Vedanta, the philosophical teaching of Hinduism, as well emphasizes that jnana
(knowledge) requires a solid basis in ethics (Dharma). Chuang Tzu, spoke of acquiring
knowledge of "the ten thousand things" (i.e., of all nature) through virtuous living and
practicing stillness: "to a mind that is 'still' the whole universe surrenders." 2
Confucius's famous passage concerning the highest learning (da xue) connects utmost
knowledge of the universe to the cultivation of one's person and the rectification of one's
The challenge from these eminent Buddhist teachers to the nearly ex
cathedra authority generally accorded to science should give pause to anyone attempting
a facile identification of Buddhism with science. Their aims and methods, though
tantalizingly parallel, upon closer analysis diverge. Correspondences do exist, but
fundamental differences inhere as well. To gloss over them not only encourages sloppy
thinking, but approaches hubris. So we must ask: to what extent is our conception of
science as the arbiter of knowledge culture-bound, even myopic? Could our near total
faith in science blind us to an inherent bias in such a stance: we presume that the logic,
norms, and procedures of the scientific method are universally applicable and their
findings are universally valid. Science may not only have limited relevance for
interpreting Buddhism, but may distort our very understanding of its meaning.
Thus, in a quest to reach an easy and elegant reconciliation of faith and reason, we
may unwittingly fall prey to "selective perception"—noticing and embracing only those
elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of thinking and giving short
shrift to the rest. Overplaying the similarities between science and Buddhism can lead
into a similar trap, where our dominant Western thought-way (science) handicaps rather
than helps us to understand another worldview. In Buddhism, this is called "the
impediment of what is known."
It may prove more salutary to allow Buddhism to "rub us the wrong way" — to
challenge our preconceptions and habitual ways, to remain strange and different from
anything to which we have been accustomed. To borrow a metaphor from Henry Clarke
Warren, we might enjoy a "walking in Fairyland" in shoes that do not quite fit:
A large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism has arisen
from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All the ideas, the
modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about, have always
seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been accustomed, that I felt
all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the charm that the Oriental
thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they so seldom fit into Western