Science and Buddhism:
A Meeting or a Parting?
Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto
To talk of Buddhism
we must first talk about its origins. I have suggested that the origin of
religion was the fear of danger, but this is not true of Buddhism, which
arose from the fear of suffering. Please note this distinction. Dealing
with the origins of religion we talk about danger, but when dealing with
Buddhism we talk about suffering, which has a more specific meaning. The
fear of danger has its object in external factors, such as floods,
earthquakes, and so on, but suffering includes all the problems
experienced in life, including those within the mind.
What is suffering?
Suffering is the condition of stress and conflict inherent within the
human predicament. Simply speaking, suffering (dukkha) is
difficulty (pañha), because difficulty is what causes stress and
In the religious
quest for protection from danger, people saw that in human society events
were caused by human agents. They thought that there must be someone
directing things in the natural world also, and so religions proposed God,
a "someone," a supernatural source for all natural events. Applying the
human social model to the forces behind nature, they came up with God.
This is why some contemporary psychologists, reversing a well-known
Christian teaching, have said that mankind created God in his own image.
Mankind reasoned that it was necessary to appease the God, just as for an
earthly leader, and this gave rise to various techniques and ceremonies
for paying homage to the deity.
The essential factor in determining events in the world,
according to these ancient religions, was the will of God.
The factor which tied humanity to god or the supernatural
That faith was demonstrated through sacrifices, prayers, and
So we have an
overall picture here of a director of events -- the will of God; we have
the human connection -- faith; and we have the method of interaction --
sacrifices, prayers and ceremonies. This is the general picture of the
role of faith in most religions.
Now, let's see how
these factors relate when it comes to Buddhism. As I have mentioned,
Buddhism is based on the desire to be free of suffering. To be free of
suffering, you must have a method. To know the method, you have to look at
the source of suffering. Whereas other religions taught that the source of
danger was in supernatural forces, Buddhism says that the source of
suffering is a natural process which must be understood.
Suffering has an
origin which is subject to the natural processes of cause and effect. Not
knowing or understanding this natural cause and effect process is the
cause of suffering. Buddhism delves into the origin of suffering by
encouraging keen investigation of this law of cause and effect, or Law of
At this point we
have arrived at the source of Buddhism. Just now I said that the origin of
other religions was the awareness of danger, the origin of danger in turn
being the will of God or supernatural forces; but the source of Buddhism
is the awareness of suffering, and the origin of suffering is ignorance of
the Law of Nature.
Now we come to
redressing the problem. When ignorance of the Law of Nature is the cause,
the remedy is its exact opposite, and that is knowledge and understanding
of it, which we call wisdom. Up until the emergence of Buddhism, religions
had relied on faith as the connection between human beings and the source
of danger. Buddhism shifted the human connection from faith to wisdom, and
this is a salient characteristic of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, human
beings must know and understand the process of cause and effect, and treat
problems according to such knowledge.
the work of correcting the factors involved in the creation of suffering
is a human responsibility, and lies within human potential. Responsibility
for solving the problem has shifted from the will of God to human
Three points are
religions concern themselves with the source of danger, which is said to
be God (or divine), but Buddhism concerns itself with the source of
suffering, which is said to be ignorance.
2. The tie to this
source in theistic religions is faith, but in Buddhism it is wisdom.
3. The director of
results in theistic religions is a divine or supernatural power, but in
Buddhism this responsibility has been placed back into human hands, with
the emphasis on human action.
The emphasis in
Buddhism shifts from faith to wisdom, and this is a revolutionary change.
Such wisdom begins with the desire to know, or the desire for knowledge --
before there can be wisdom, there must be an aspiration for it. But this
aspiration differs from the aspiration for knowledge in science, as I will
presently point out.
shift in emphasis in Buddhism is from the directives of a deity to human
endeavor. This is one of Buddhism's cornerstones. No matter where Buddhism
spreads to, or how distorted the teaching becomes, this emphasis on human
endeavor never varies. If this one principle is missing, then we can
confidently say that it is no longer Buddhism.
The principle of
human endeavor is expressed in Buddhist circles as the law of kamma.
People may misunderstand kamma, there may be many misconceptions about it,
even within the Buddhist world, but no matter how the teachings of
Buddhism may vary from place to place and time to time, kamma always deals
with human endeavor.
combination of adherence to the Law of Nature, proclaiming man's
independence, and putting wisdom to the fore instead of faith, is a unique
event in the history of religion. It has even caused some Western scholars
to wonder whether Buddhism is a religion at all, and Western books on
Buddhism often state that Buddhism is not a religion.
Summarizing, we have
these three important principles:
1. a Law of Nature
2. proclaiming man's independence
3. replacing faith with wisdom
natural religions: understanding nature through wisdom
I would like to
describe here some of the basic characteristics of Buddhism. Firstly I
would like to present some of the teachings from the Buddha himself, and
then expand on them to see how they relate to science.
1. Adherence to the Law of Nature:
Truth is the Law of Nature, something which naturally exists. The Buddha
was the one who discovered this truth. At funerals, Buddhist monks chant a
Sutta called the Dhammaniyama Sutta. The meaning of this Sutta is
that the truth of nature exists as a normal condition, whether a Buddha
arises or not.
What is this Law of
Nature? The monks chant uppada va bhikkhave tathagatanam, anuppada va
tathagatanam: "Whether Buddhas arise or not, it is a natural,
unchanging truth that all compounded things are unenduring, stressful, and
not-self." [Dhammaniyama or Uppada Sutta, A.I. 286]
(anicca) means that compounded things are constantly being born
and dying, arising and passing away.
(dukkha) means that they are constantly being conditioned by
conflicting and opposing forces, they are unable to maintain any
(anatta) means that they are not a self or intrinsic entity, they
merely follow supporting factors. Any form they take is entirely at the
direction of supporting factors. This is the principle of conditioned
arising, the most basic level of truth.
The Buddha was
enlightened to these truths, after which he declared and explained them.
This is how the chant goes. This first principle is a very important one,
the basis of Buddhism. Buddhism regards these natural laws as fundamental
2. The interrelation and interdependence of
all things: Buddhism teaches the Law of
Dependent Origination. In brief, the law states:
idam na hoti
When there is this,
this is; when this is not, neither is this.
Because this arises, so does this; because this ceases, so does this. [As
in the Natumha Sutta, S.II. 64-5]
This is a truth, a
natural law. It is the natural law of cause and effect on its most basic
It is worth noting
that Buddhism prefers to use the words "causes and conditions" rather than
"cause and effect." Cause and effect refers to a specific and linear
relationship. In Buddhism it is believed that results do not arise simply
from a cause alone, but also from numerous supporting factors. When the
conditions are ready, then the result follows. For example, suppose we
plant a mango seed and a mango tree sprouts. The mango tree is the fruit
(effect), but what is the cause of that mango tree? You might say the seed
is the cause, but if there were only the seed, the tree couldn't grow.
Many other factors are needed, such as earth, water, oxygen, suitable
temperature, fertilizer and so on. Only when factors are right can the
result arise. This principle explains why some people, even when they feel
that they have created the causes, do not receive the results they
expected. They must ask themselves whether they have also created the
Note also that this
causal relationship does not necessarily proceed in a linear direction. We
tend to think of these things as following on one from the other -- one
thing arises first, and then the result arises afterwards. But it doesn't
necessarily have to function in that way. Suppose we had a blackboard and
I took some chalk and wrote on it the letters A, B, and C. The letters
that appear on the blackboard are a result, but what is their cause? We
might answer "a person," but we might also answer "chalk." No matter which
factor we take to be the cause, it alone cannot give rise to the result.
To achieve a letter "A" on a blackboard there must be a confluence of many
factors -- a writer, chalk, a blackboard of a color that contrasts with
the color of the chalk, a suitable temperature, the surface must be free
of excess moisture -- so many things have to be just right, and these are
all factors in the generation of the result.
Now, in the
appearance of that letter "A," it isn't necessary for all the factors
involved to have occurred one after the other, is it? We can see that some
of those factors must be there simultaneously. Many of the factors are
interdependent in various ways. This is the Buddhist teaching of cause and
3. The position of faith:
Just now I said that Buddhism shifted the emphasis in religion from faith
to wisdom, so why should we be speaking about faith again? In fact faith
plays a very important role in Buddhism, but the emphasis is changed. Let
us take a look at how faith in Buddhism is connected to verification
through actual experience. The teaching that is most quoted in this
respect is the Kalama Sutta, which contains the passage:
"Do not believe
simply because you have heard it.
"Do not believe
simply because you have learn it.
"Do not believe
simply because you have practiced it from ancient times.
"Do not believe
simply because it is rumored.
"Do not believe
simply because it is in the scriptures.
"Do not believe
simply on logic.
"Do not believe
simply through guesswork.
"Do not believe
simply through reasoning.
"Do not believe
simply because it conforms to your theory.
"Do not believe
simply because it seems credible.
"Do not believe
simply out of faith in your teacher. [Kalama or Kesaputtiya Sutta, A.I.
This teaching amazed
people in the West when they first heard about it, it was one of
Buddhism's most popular teachings, because at that time science was just
beginning to flourish. This idea of not believing anything other than
verifiable truths was very popular. The Kalama Sutta is fairly well known
to Western people familiar with Buddhism, but Thai Buddhists have barely
heard of it.
The Buddha goes on
to say in the Kalama Sutta that one must know and understand through
experience which things are skillful and which unskillful. When something
is seen to be unskillful and harmful, conducive not to benefit but to
suffering, it should be given up. When something is seen to be skillful,
useful and conducive to happiness, it should be acted upon. This is a
matter of clear knowledge, of direct realization, of personal experience
-- it is a shift from faith to wisdom.
The Buddha also gave
some clear principles for examining one's personal experience:
"Independent of faith, independent of learning, independent of reasoned
thinking, independent of conformity with one's own views, one knows
clearly for oneself, in the present moment, when there is greed in the
mind, when there is not greed in the mind; when there is hatred in the
mind and when there is not hatred in the mind; when there is delusion in
the mind and when there is not delusion in the mind." This is true
personal experience, the state of our own minds, which can be known
clearly for ourselves in the present moment.
4. Proclamation of mankind's independence:
Buddhism arose among the Brahmanical beliefs, which held that Brahma was
the creator of the world. Brahma (God) was the appointer of all events,
and mankind had to perform sacrifices and ceremonies of homage, of which
people at that time had devised many, to keep Brahma happy. Their
ceremonies for gaining the favor of Brahma and other gods were lavish. The
Vedas stated that Brahma had divided human beings into four castes.
Whichever caste a person was born into, he was bound for life. There was
no way to change the situation, it was all tied up by the directives of
Buddha-to-be was born, as the Prince Siddhattha Gotama, the first thing
attributed to him was his proclamation of human independence. You may have
read in the Buddha's biography, how, when the Prince was born, he
performed the symbolic gesture of walking seven steps and proclaiming, "I
am the greatest in the world, I am the foremost in the world, I am the
grandest in the world." [Mahapadana Sutta, D.II. 15] This statement can be
easily misconstrued. One may wonder, "Why was Prince Siddhattha being so
arrogant?" but this statement should be understood as the Buddha's
proclamation of human independence. The principles expounded by the Buddha
in his later life all point to the potential of human beings to develop
themselves and realize the highest good, and so become the most sublime of
all beings. The Buddha's own enlightenment was the supreme demonstration
and proof of that potential. With such potential, it is no longer
necessary for human beings to plead for help from external sources.
Instead they can better themselves. A human being who becomes a Buddha is
revered by even the celestial beings and gods.
There are many
examples of this kind of teaching in the scriptures. Consider, for
example, the oft-quoted:
attadantam samahitam ...
This means: "The
Buddha, although a human being, is one who has trained and perfected
himself ... Even the gods revere him." [Naga Sutta, A.III. 346;
Udayitherakatha, Khu., Thag. 689]
With this principle,
the human position changes. The attitude of looking externally, taking
refuge in gods and deities, has been firmly retracted, and people are
advised to look at themselves, to see within themselves a potential for
the finest achievement. No longer is it necessary for people to throw
their fates to the gods. If human beings realize this potential, even
those gods will recognize their excellence and pay reverence.
entails a belief, or faith, in the potential of human beings to be
developed to the highest level, of which the Buddha is our example.
5. Remedy based on practical and reasoned
action rather than dependence on external forces:
This principle is well illustrated in one of the teachings of the
threatened by danger, people take refuge in spirits, shrines, and sacred
trees, but these are not a true refuge. Turning to such things as a
refuge, there is no true safety.
"Those who go for
refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, who understand the Four Noble
Truths by seeing problems, the cause of problems, freedom from problems,
and the way leading to freedom from problems, are able to transcend all
danger." [Dhammapada, Verses 188-192]
This is a turning
point, a shift in emphasis from pleading with deities to responsible
action. However, if unaware of this principle, people can even see the
Triple Gem as simply an object of devotion, in the same way that members
of theistic religions see deities.
The Triple Gem
begins with the Buddha, our example of a perfected human being. This is a
reminder to humanity of its potential, and as such encourages us to
reflect on our responsibility for its development. By taking the Buddha
for refuge, we reflect on our responsibility to develop ourselves and use
wisdom to address the problems of life.
When we think of the
Dhamma, we are reminded that this development of potential must be done
through means which conform to the Law of Nature and function according to
causes and conditions.
When we reflect on
the Sangha, we think of those who have used the Dhamma (teaching)
skillfully, developing and realizing their highest potential. They are
living examples of the actual attainment of the truth, and, through
developing ourselves in right practice, we can become one of them.
These are the Three
Refuges. To believe or have faith in these refuges means that we strive to
solve problems like wise human beings. This tenet compels us to use
The way to solve
problems through wisdom is:
(suffering ): We begin with the problem, recognizing that there is one.
(the cause of suffering -- craving based on ignorance): We search out the
cause of that problem.
(the cessation of suffering -- Nibbana): We establish our aim, which is to
extinguish the problem.
(the way leading to the cessation of suffering): We practice in accordance
with that aim.
6. Teaching only those truths which are of
benefit: There are many different kinds of
knowledge and many different kinds of truth, but some of them are not
useful, they are not concerned with solving the problems of life. The
Buddha did not teach such truths and was not interested in finding out
about them. He concentrated on teaching only those truths which would be
of practical benefit. This principle is illustrated in the simile of the
leaves, which the Buddha gave while he was staying with a company of monks
in the Sisapa forest. One day he picked up a handful of leaves
from the forest floor and asked the monks, "Which is the greater number,
the leaves in my hand, or the leaves on the trees?" An easy question, and
the monks answered immediately. The leaves in the Buddha's hand were very
few, while the leaves in the forest were of far greater number.
The Buddha replied,
"It is the same with the things that I teach you. There are many truths
that I know, but most of them I do not teach. They are like the leaves in
the forest. The truths that I do teach are like the leaves here in my
hand. Why do I not teach those other truths? Because they are not
conducive to ultimate wisdom, to understanding of the way things are, or
to the rectification of problems and the transcendence of suffering. They
do not lead to the attainment of the goal, which is Nibbana." [Sisapa
Sutta, S.V. 437]
The Buddha said that
he taught the things he did because they were useful, they led to the
solving of problems, and were conducive to a good life. In short, they led
to the transcendence of suffering.
simile was given in answer to some questions of metaphysics. Such
questions are among the questions with which science is currently
wrestling, such as: Is the Universe finite or infinite? Does it have a
beginning? The scriptures mention ten stock philosophical questions which
had been in existence from before the time of the Buddha. One monk went to
ask the Buddha about them. The Buddha refused to answer his questions, but
instead gave the following simile:
A man was shot by a
poisoned arrow. With the arrowhead still embedded within him, his
relatives raced to find a doctor. As the doctor was preparing to cut out
the arrowhead, the man said, "Wait! I will not let you take out this
arrowhead until you tell me the name of the man who shot me, where he
lives, what caste he is, what kind of arrow he used, whether he used a bow
or a crossbow, what the arrow was made of, what the bow was made of, what
the bowstring was made of, and what kind of feather was attached to the
end of the arrow. Until I find out the answers to these questions, I will
not let you take this arrow out." [Chulamalunkyovada Sutta, M.I. 428]
Obviously, if he
were to wait for the answers to all those questions that man would not
only fail to find out the information he wanted, but he would die
needlessly. What would be the proper course of action here? Before
anything else, he would have to have that arrowhead taken out. Then, if he
still wanted to know the answers to those questions, he could go ahead and
In the same way, the
subject of the Buddha's teaching is human suffering and the way to relieve
it. Metaphysical questions are not at all relevant. Even if the Buddha had
answered them, his answers could not be verified. The Buddha taught to
quickly do what must be done, not to waste time in vain pursuits and
debates. This is why he did not answer such questions.
I have already said
that most religions see the events of the world as the workings of God or
supernatural forces. According to them, if mankind does not want any
unpleasant events to befall him, or if he wants prosperity, he must let
God see some display of worship and obeisance. This applies not only to
external natural events, but even people's personal lives. The deity, God,
is the Creator of the universe, together with all of its happiness and
suffering. He is constantly monitoring mankind's behavior to ascertain
whether it is pleasing to Him or not, and people are constantly on their
guard to avoid any actions which might displease Him.
According to this
standard, all of humanity's behavior can be classified into two
categories. Firstly, those actions which are pleasing to God, which are
duly rewarded, and which are known as "good"; and those actions which are
displeasing to God, which He punishes, and which are known as "evil."
Whatever God approves of is "good," whatever He forbids is "evil." The
priests of the religion are the mediators who inform mankind which actions
are good and which are evil, according to God's standards. These have been
the accepted standards for defining good and evil in Western culture.
As for science, from
the time it parted with religion it interested itself solely with the
external, physical world and completely ignored the abstract side of
things. Science took no interest at all in moral or ethical issues, seeing
them as matters of religion, unfounded on facts, and turned its back on
them altogether. People in Western countries, the countries which are
technologically developed, were captivated by the advances of science. In
comparison, religion's teachings of deities and supernatural forces seemed
ill-founded, and so they, too, turned their backs on religion. At that
time morals and ethics lost their meaning. If God is no longer important,
then morals or ethics, God's set of laws, are no longer important. Many
people today, especially those in scientific circles, view ethics as
merely the arbitrary dictates of certain groups of people, such as
priests, established at best to maintain order in society, but lacking any
basis in ultimate truth.
Those branches of
science which study the development of human civilization, especially
sociology, and some branches of anthropology, seeing the success of the
physical sciences, have tried to afford their branches of learning a
similar standing, by using much the same principles and methods as the
physical sciences. The social sciences have tended to look on ethics or
morals as values without scientific foundation. They have tended to avoid
the subject of ethics in order to show that they, too, are pure sciences
void of value systems. Even when they do make studies about ethical
matters, they look on them only as measurable quantities of social
sciences, the social sciences, and people in the modern age in general,
look on ethical principles as purely conventional creations. They confuse
ethics with its conventional manifestations, a grave mistake in the search
for authentic knowledge -- in trying to avoid falsehood, they have missed
Now let us come back
to the subject of Buddhism. In regard to ethics, both science and Buddhism
differ from the mainstream of religions, but while science has cut itself
off from them, completely disregarding any consideration of ethics or
values, Buddhism turns toward them, studying and teaching the role of
ethical principles within the natural process. While most religions look
at the events of nature, both outside of man and within him, as directed
by the will of God, Buddhism looks at these events as a normal and natural
process of causes and conditions. These same laws apply as much to mental
phenomena as to the physical workings of nature. They are part of the
stream of causes and conditions, functioning entirely at the directives of
the natural laws. The difference in quality is determined by variations
within the factors of the stream.
Buddhism divides the
laws of nature, called niyama, into five kinds. They are:
(physical laws): The natural laws dealing with the events in the natural
world or physical environment.
(biological laws): The natural laws dealing with animals and plants,
(psychic laws): The natural laws dealing with the workings of the mind and
(karmic or moral laws): The natural law dealing with human behavior,
specifically intention and the actions resulting from it.
(the general law of cause and effect): The natural law dealing with the
relationship and interdependence of all things, known simply as the way of
things. [DA.U. 234; Dhs A. 272]
In terms of these
five divisions of natural law, we can see that science has complete
confidence in the dhammaniyama (the general law of cause and
effect), while limiting its field of research to utuniyama
(physical laws) and bijaniyama (biological laws). As for
Buddhism, practically speaking it emphasizes kammaniyama (the law
of moral action), although the Abhidhamma stresses the study of
cittaniyama (psychic laws), in their relation to kammaniyama
of Kamma -- scientific morality
A true understanding
of reality is impossible if there is no understanding of the interrelation
and unity of all events in nature. This includes, in particular, the human
element, the mental factors and values systems, of those who are studying
those events. Scientists may study the physical laws, but as long as they
are ignorant of themselves, the ones who are studying those laws, they
will never be able to see the truth -- even of the physical sciences.
On a physical level,
human beings exist within the natural physical environment, but on an
experiential level the world is in fact more a product of our intentions.
Our daily lives, our thoughts, behavior and deeds, our communications, our
traditions and social institutions are entirely products of human
intentional action, which is known in Buddhism as kamma.
Intention is the unique faculty which lies behind human progress. The
human world is thus the world of intention, and intention is the creator
and mover of the world. In Buddhism it is said: kammuna vattati loko
-- the world is driven by kamma. [Vasettha Sutta, Khu., Sm., 654] In order
to understand the human world, or the human situation, it is necessary to
understand the natural law of kamma.
intentional action, ethical principles and mental qualities are entirely
natural. They exist in accordance with the Laws of Nature. They are
neither the will of God, nor are they accidental. They are processes which
are within our human capacity to understand and influence.
Please note that
Buddhism distinguishes between the Law of Kamma and psychic laws. This
indicates that the mind and intention are not the same thing, and can be
studied as separate truths. However, these two truths are extremely
closely linked. The simple analogy is that of a man driving a motor boat.
The mind is like the boat and its engine, while intention is the driver of
the boat, who decides where the boat will go and what it will do.
events may occur as a result of the workings of different laws in
different situations, while some events are a product of a number of these
natural laws functioning in unison. A man with tears in his eyes may be
suffering from the effects of smoke (physical law), or from extremely
happy or sad emotional states (psychic law), or he may be suffering
anxiety over past deeds (law of kamma). A headache might be caused by
illness (biological law), a stuffy or overheated room (physical law) or it
could be from depression and worry (law of kamma).
question of free will
When people from the
West start studying the subject of kamma, they are often confused by the
problem of free will. Is there such a thing as free will? In actual fact
there is no free will, in the absolute sense, because intention is just
one factor within the overall natural processes of cause and effect.
However, will can be considered free in a relative way. We might say it is
relatively free, in that it is in fact one of the factors within the
overall natural process. In Buddhism this is called purisakara.
Each person has the ability to initiate thinking and intention, and as
such become the instigating factor in a cause and effect process, or
kamma, for which we say each individual must accept responsibility.
or lack of understanding, in relation to this matter of free will, arise
from a number of more deeply-rooted misconceptions, in particular, the
delusion of self. The concept of self causes a lot of confusion when
people try to look at reality as an actual condition with minds still
trapped in habitual thinking, which clings fast to concepts. The two
perspectives clash. The perception is of a doer and a receiver of results.
While in reality there is only a feeling, the perception is of "one who
feels." (In the texts it is said: "There is the experience of feeling, but
no-one who feels.") The reason for this confusion is ignorance of the
teaching of anatta, not-self.
stop simply at free will, but strives to the stage of being "free of
will," transcending the power of will, which can only be achieved through
the complete development of human potential through wisdom.
Within the process
of human development, the mind and wisdom are distinguished from each
other. Wisdom that is fully developed will liberate the mind. So we have
the mind with intention, and the mind with wisdom. However, this is a
practical concern, a vast subject which must be reserved for a later time.
[*] The allusion here, and in the previous four
paragraphs, is to the Four Noble Truths. [Back
[Taken from Bhikkhu
P. A. Payutto., Toward Sustainable Science, A Buddhist Look at
Trends in Scientific Development. (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation,
1993), pp. 53-74].
thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for transcription of this article.