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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 (paha), because difficulty is what causes stress and conflict.

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 was faith.
  • That faith was demonstrated through sacrifices, prayers, and ceremonies.

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 Nature.

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.

Finally,[*] 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 endeavor.

Three points are highly significant:

1. Theistic 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.

Another important 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.

Buddhism's 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

The 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]

Unenduring (anicca) means that compounded things are constantly being born and dying, arising and passing away.

Stressful (dukkha) means that they are constantly being conditioned by conflicting and opposing forces, they are unable to maintain any constancy.

Not-self (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 truths.

2. The interrelation and interdependence of all things: Buddhism teaches the Law of Dependent Origination. In brief, the law states:

Imasmim sati idam hoti

Imassuppada idam uppajjati

Imasmim asati idam na hoti

Imassa nirodha idam nirujjhati

Which means:

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 level.

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 conditions.

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 condition.

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:

"Here, Kalamas,

"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. 188]

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 Brahma.

When the 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:

Manussabhutam sambuddham
attadantam samahitam ...
deva'pi namassan'ti

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.

This principle 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 Dhammapada:

"Finding themselves 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 wisdom.

The way to solve problems through wisdom is:

1. Dukkha (suffering ): We begin with the problem, recognizing that there is one.

2. Samudaya (the cause of suffering -- craving based on ignorance): We search out the cause of that problem.

3. Nirodha (the cessation of suffering -- Nibbana): We establish our aim, which is to extinguish the problem.

4. Magga (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.

Another important 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 find out.

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.

Good and evil

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 behavior.

The physical 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 the truth.

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:

1. Utuniyama (physical laws): The natural laws dealing with the events in the natural world or physical environment.

2. Bijaniyama (biological laws): The natural laws dealing with animals and plants, particularly heredity.

3. Cittaniyama (psychic laws): The natural laws dealing with the workings of the mind and thinking.

4. Kammaniyama (karmic or moral laws): The natural law dealing with human behavior, specifically intention and the actions resulting from it.

5. Dhammaniyama (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 and dhammaniyama.

The Law 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.

All behavior, 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.

Certain natural 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).

The 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.

Misunderstandings, 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.

Buddhism doesn't 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 to text]


[Taken from Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto., Toward Sustainable Science, A Buddhist Look at Trends in Scientific Development. (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1993), pp. 53-74].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for transcription of this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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