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The Role of Faith in
Science and Buddhism
Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto

Now let us take a comparative look at some of the qualities related to Buddhism, science and other religions, beginning with faith.

Most religions use emotion as the driving force for attaining their goals. Emotion arouses belief and obedience to the teachings, and emotions, particularly those which produce faith, are a necessary part of most religions. In other words, because faith is so crucial to them, emotion is encouraged. In contrast to other religions, Buddhism stresses wisdom, giving faith a place of importance only in the initial stages. Even then, faith is used with reservation, as wisdom is considered to be the prime factor in attaining the goal.

In order to clearly understand faith, it helps to analyze it into different kinds. Generally speaking, faith can be divided into two main kinds:

The first kind of faith is that which obstructs wisdom. It relies on inciting, or even enforcing, belief, and such belief must be complete and unquestioning. To doubt the teaching is forbidden, only unquestioning obedience is allowed. This kind of faith does not allow any room for wisdom to develop. Faith in most religions is of this variety. There must be belief and there must be obedience. Whatever the religion says must go, no questions asked. This feature of religion is known as dogma, the doctrine that is unquestionable, characterized by adherence in the face of reason.

The second kind of faith is a channel for wisdom. It stimulates curiosity and is the incentive for learning. In this world there are so many things to learn about; without faith we have no starting point or direction in which to set our learning, but when faith arises, be it in a person or a teaching, we have that direction. Faith, particularly in a person, awakens our interest and encourages us to approach the object of that interest. Having faith in the order of monks, for example, encourages us to approach them and learn from them, to gain a clearer understanding of the teachings.

An example of this kind of faith can be seen in the life story of Sariputta, the Buddha's foremost disciple. He became interested in the teachings of the Buddha through seeing the monk Assaji walking on alms round. Being impressed by the monk's bearing, which suggested some special quality, some special knowledge or spiritual attainment, he approached Assaji and asked for a teaching. This is a good example of the second kind of faith.

The second kind of faith is a positive influence, an incentive for learning. It also gives a point of focus for that learning. Energies are motivated in whatever direction faith inclines. A scientist, for example, having the faith in a particular hypothesis, will direct his enquiry specifically in that direction, and will not be distracted by irrelevant data.

These two kinds of faith must be clearly distinguished. The faith that functions in Buddhism is the faith which leads to wisdom, and as such is secondary to wisdom. Buddhism is a religion free of dogma.

The second kind of faith is found in both Buddhism and science. It has three important functions in relation to wisdom:

1. It gives rise to interest and is the incentive to begin learning.

2. It provides the energy needed in the pursuit of that learning.

3. It gives direction or focus to that energy.

Apart from these main functions, well-directed faith has a number of further characteristics, which can be shown in the Buddhist system of practice. The goal of Buddhism is liberation, transcendence, or freedom. Buddhism wants human beings to be free, to transcend defilements and suffering. This freedom must be attained through wisdom, understanding of the truth, or the law of nature. This truth is as equally attainable by the disciples as it was by the Teacher, and their knowledge is independent of him. The Buddha once asked Sariputta, "Do you believe what I have been explaining to you?" Sariputta answered, "Yes, I see that it is so." The Buddha asked him, "Are you saying this just out of faith in me?" Sariputta answered, "No, I answered in agreement not because of faith in the Blessed One, but because I clearly see for myself that it is so." [Pubbakotthaka Sutta, Saim. S.V. 220]

This is another of Buddhism's principles. The Buddha did not want people to simply believe him or attach to him. He pointed out the fault of faith in others, because he wanted people to be free. This liberation, or freedom, the goal of Buddhism, is attained through wisdom, through knowledge of reality.

But how is wisdom to arise? For most people, faith is an indispensable stepping stone in the development of wisdom. (For clear thinkers, those who have what is known as yoniso manasikara,[*] the need for faith may be greatly reduced.)

In order to attain liberation it is necessary to develop wisdom, and that development is in turn dependent on faith. This gives us three stages connected like links in a chain:

Faith leads to Wisdom leads to Liberation

Faith is the initiator of the journey to truth, which in turn leads to wisdom, which in turn leads to liberation. This model of conditions is the defining constraint on faith in Buddhism. Because faith is related to both wisdom and liberation, it has two characteristics:

1. It leads to wisdom.

2. It is coupled with, and leads to, liberation.

Faith in Buddhism does not forbid questions or doubts, nor demand belief or unquestioning committal in any way. Both Buddhism and science use faith as a stepping stone on the journey to truth. Now the question arises, what kind of faith is it which leads to wisdom? It is the belief that this universe, or the world of nature, functions according to constant and invariable laws, and these laws are accessible to man's understanding. This faith is the impetus for the search for truth, but because faith in itself is incapable of leading directly to the truth, it must be used to further develop wisdom. At this stage the faith of Buddhism and the faith of science look very similar. Both have a belief in the laws of nature, and both strive to know the truth of these laws through wisdom. However, the similarity ends here. From this point on, the faith of Buddhism and the faith of science part their ways.

I have said that the source of both religion and science is the awareness of problems in life, the dangers of the natural world. In search of a remedy for this problem, human beings looked on the natural environment with trepidation and wonder. These two kinds of feeling led to both the desire for a way out of danger, and the desire to know the truth of nature. From this common origin, religion and science part their ways. Science, in particular, confines its research exclusively to external, physical phenomena. Science does not include mankind in its picture of the universe, except in a very limited, biological sense. In other words, science does not consider the universe as including mankind, and does not look at mankind as encompassing the whole of the universe.

Looking at nature in this way, science has only one object for its faith, and that is the physical universe -- the faith that nature has fixed laws. In brief we could call this "faith in nature."

But the objective of Buddhism is to solve the problem of human suffering, which arises from both internal and external conditions, with an emphasis on the world of human behavior. At the same time, Buddhism sees this process as a natural one. For this reason, Buddhism, like science, has faith in nature, but this faith also includes human beings, because human beings are a part of nature, and they encompass the whole of nature within themselves.

The faith of science has only one object, but the faith of Buddhism has two objects, and they are:

1. Nature

2. Mankind

In one sense, these two kinds of faith are one and the same, because they are both beliefs in nature, the first kind more obviously so. But the first kind of faith does not cover the whole picture, it includes only the external environment. In Buddhism, mankind is recognized as a part of nature. The physical human organism is as natural as the external environment.

Moreover, human beings possess a special quality which differs from the external manifestations of nature, and distinguishes mankind from the world around him. This is a quality peculiar to human beings. You could even say it is their "humanness." This unique quality is mankind's inner world, that aspect of nature which has an ethical dimension.

In Buddhism we believe that this abstract quality of human beings is also a natural phenomenon, and is also subject to the natural laws of cause and effect, and as such is included in natural truth. In order to know and understand nature, both the physical and the mental sides of nature should be thoroughly understood.

Bearing in mind that human beings want to know and understand nature, it follows that in order to do so they must understand the ones who are studying it. Mental qualities, such as faith and desire to know, are abstract qualities. They are part of the human inner world, and as such must come into our field of research and understanding. If mental qualities are not studied, any knowledge or understanding of nature is bound to be distorted and incomplete. It will be incapable of leading to true understanding of reality.

Although in science there is faith in nature and an aspiration to know its truths, nature is not seen in its entirety. Science ignores human values and as a result has an incomplete or faulty view of nature. The scientific search for knowledge is inadequate and cannot reach completion, because one side of nature, the internal nature of man, is ignored.

As in Buddhism, the faith of science can be divided into two aspects, and has two objects. That is, firstly there is belief in the laws of nature, and secondly, belief in the ability of human intelligence to realize those laws, in other words faith in human potential. However, this second aspect of faith is not clearly stated in science, it is more a tacit understanding. Science does not mention this second kind of faith, and pays little attention to the development of the human being. Science is almost wholly motivated by the first kind of faith.

Buddhism differs from science in this respect, in that it holds the faith in human potential to be of prime importance. Buddhism has developed comprehensive practical methods for realizing this potential, and these have come to form the main body of its teachings. Throughout these teachings, faith is based on three interconnected principles:

  • the conviction that nature functions according to fixed laws;
  • the conviction in human potential to realize the truth of those laws through wisdom;
  • the conviction that the realization of these laws will enable human beings to realize the highest good, liberation from suffering.

This kind of faith makes a great difference between Buddhism and science. In Buddhism the search for truth is conducted in conjunction with training to develop human potential. The development of human potential is what determines the way knowledge is used, thus the probability of using knowledge to serve the destructive influences of greed, hatred and delusion is minimized. Instead, knowledge is used in a constructive way.

As for science, a one-sided faith in the laws of nature is liable to cause the search for knowledge to be unfocused and misdirected. There is no development of the human being, and there is no guarantee that the knowledge gained will be used in ways that are beneficial. Science's search for the truths of nature does not, therefore, help anybody, even the scientists, to attain contentment, to relieve suffering, to ease tension or to have calmer and clearer minds. Moreover, science opens wide the way for undesirable values to subvert scientific development, leading it in the direction of greed, aversion and delusion. Thus, the drives to subjugate nature and to achieve material wealth, which have guided scientific development over the last century or more, have caused exploitation and destruction of the environment. If this trend continues, scientific development will be unsustainable.

It should be stressed that human beings have minds, or, more specifically, their actions are conditioned by the mental factor of intention. Faith in the laws of nature, and the desire to understand those laws, implies a value system, be it conscious or otherwise. Beliefs and attitudes will condition the style and direction of methods used for finding the truth, as well as the context and way in which that truth is seen.

According to the Buddha's teaching, the attainment of ultimate truth is only possible with a mind which has been purified of greed, aversion and delusion. Such purification requires training, a central concern of which are beliefs, attitudes and views. A search for truth blind to the assumptions on which it is based will not only be doomed to failure (because it ignores one side of reality) but will be overwhelmed by inferior values.

Simply speaking, the knowledge of scientists is not independent of values. A simple example of these secondary values is the pleasure obtained from, and which lies behind, the search for knowledge and the discoveries it yields. Even the pure kind of search for knowledge, which is a finer value, if analyzed deeply, is likely to have other sets of values hidden within it, such as the desire to feed some personal need.

In summary, we have been looking at two levels of values: the highest value and those intermediate values which are compatible with it. The highest value is a truth which must be attained to, it cannot be artificially set up in the mind. Scientists already have faith in nature. Such conviction or faith is a value that is within them from the outset, but this faith must be expanded on to include the human being, which necessarily entails faith in the highest good, simply by bearing in mind that the laws of nature are connected to the highest good.

With the proper kind of faith, commensurate secondary values will also arise, or will be further underscored by intentional inducement. This will serve to prevent values from straying into undesirable areas, or from being overwhelmed by inferior qualities.

Faith, which is our fundamental value, conditions the values which are secondary to it, in particular the aspiration to know. From faith in the truth of nature arises the aspiration to know the truth of nature. Such an aspiration is important in both science and Buddhism. From faith in the existence of the highest good and in human potential arises the aspiration to attain the state of freedom from suffering, to remedy all problems and pursue personal development.

The first kind of aspiration is the desire to know the truth of nature. The second aspiration is the desire to attain the state of freedom. When these two aspirations are integrated, the desire for knowledge is more clearly defined and focused: it becomes the desire to know the truth of nature in order to solve problems and lead human beings to freedom. This is the consummation of Buddhism. With the merging of these two kinds of aspiration, we complete the cycle, producing balance and sufficiency. There is a clear definition for our aspiration for knowledge. It is firmly related to the human being, and directed to the express purpose of creating a noble life for the human race. This direction defines the way knowledge is to be used.

As for science, from ancient times there has been merely an aspiration for knowledge. When the aspiration for knowledge is aimless and undefined, the result is a random collection of data, an attempt to know the truth of nature by looking further and further outward. It is truth for its own sake. The scientific search for truth lacks direction. However, human beings are driven by values. Since this aspiration for knowledge is without clear definition, it throws open the chance for other aspirations, or lesser values, to fill the vacuum. Some of these ulterior aims I have already mentioned, such as the desire to subjugate nature and the desire to produce material wealth. These two aspirations have created a different kind of process. I would like to reiterate the meaning of that process: it is the aspiration to know the truths of nature in order to exploit it for the production of material wealth. This process has been the cause of innumerable problems in recent times -- mental, social, and in particular, as we are seeing at present, environmental.

The thinking of the industrial age has taken advantage of science's oversight, an undefined aspiration for knowledge, and led to human action without consideration for the human being. Looking closely, we will see that the reason science has this lack of direction is because it looks for truth exclusively in the external, material world. It does not search for knowledge within the human individual. Science is not interested in, and in fact ignores, human nature, and as a result has become an instrument of industry and its selfish advances on the environment.

Ignorance of human nature means ignorance of the fact that pandering to the five senses is incapable of making humankind happy or contented. Sensual desire has no end, and so the need for material resources is endless. Because material goods are obtained through exploitation of nature, it follows that the manipulation of nature is also without end and without check. Ultimately, nature will not have enough to satisfy human desires, and in fact the exploitation of nature in itself gives man more misery than happiness.

Man-centered versus self-centered

Just now I mentioned some important common ground shared by Buddhism and science in regard to faith and aspiration for knowledge. Now I would like to take a look at the object of this faith and aspiration, which is reality or truth. Our aspiration and our faith are rooted in the desire for truth or knowledge. Having reached the essential truth of nature through knowledge, our aspiration is fulfilled.

In Buddhism the goal is to use the knowledge of truth to improve on life, to solve problems and attain perfect freedom. The goal of science, on the other hand, is the utilization of knowledge for the subjugation of nature, in order to provide a wealth of material goods. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the words of Rene Descartes, whose importance in the development of Western science and philosophy is well known. He wrote that science was part of the struggle to "render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature."[3]

With different goals, the object of knowledge must also be different. The prime object of Buddhist enquiry is the nature of the human being, and from there all the things with which the human being must deal. Mankind is always the centre from which we study the truth of nature.

In science, on the other hand, the object of research is the external, physical environment. Even though science occasionally looks into the human being, it is usually only as a physical organism within the physical universe. Mankind as such is not studied. That is, science may study human life, but only in a biological sense, not in relation to "being human."

So the field of the Buddhist search for knowledge is the human being, while that of science is the external world. With this point of reference, let us take a look at the respective extents of the nature that science seeks to know, and the nature that Buddhism seeks to know.

Buddhism believes that human beings are the highest evolution of nature, and so encompass the entire spectrum of reality within themselves. That is, a human being contains nature on both the physical and mental planes. Therefore, only through studying mankind is it possible to know the truth of all aspects of nature, both the physical and the mental.

Buddhism puts mankind at the centre, it is anthropocentric. Its express aim is to understand and to develop the human being. Science, on the other hand, is interested primarily in the external world. It seeks to know the truths of things outside of the human being. Over the years, however, as science incorporated the intention to conquer nature into its values, it once again put mankind at the centre of the picture, but in a very different way from the way Buddhism does. Buddhism gives human beings the central position in the sense of recognizing their responsibilities toward nature, insofar as they must develop themselves and redress problems. This outlook is of benefit, it is aimed at the transcendence of suffering, freedom and the highest good.

Science, in incorporating the view of the desirability of subjugating nature into its aspirations, places mankind in the centre of the picture also, but only as the exploiter of nature. Man says "I want this," from where he proceeds to manipulate nature to his desires. Simply speaking, science's placing of man in the centre is from the perspective of feeding his selfishness.

Having looked at the aim of enquiry, let us now consider the means or methods for attaining that aim. In Buddhism, the method is threefold.

1. Impartial awareness of sense data, awareness of things as they are.

2. Ordered or systematic thinking.

3. Verification through direct experience.

How can we ensure that the awareness of sense data will be unbiased? In general, whenever human beings cognize sense data, certain values immediately become involved. Right here, at the very first arising of awareness, there is already the problem of whether the experiencer is free of these values or not.

Buddhism stresses the importance of seeing the truth right from the first arising of awareness: when eye sees sights, ear hears sounds, and so on. For most human beings, this is already a problem. Awareness is usually in accordance with the way we would like things to be, or as we think they are, rarely as they really are. We cannot see things the way they are because of distortions, biases, and preferences. When there is awareness of a feeling, the workings of the mind will immediately react with like or dislike. People build these reactions into habits and they become extremely fluent. As soon as an experience is cognized, these values of comfort, discomfort or indifference immediately follow, and from there to love or hate, delight or aversion. Once like and dislike arise, they influence the subsequent thought process. If there is attraction, thinking will take on one form; if there is repulsion, it will take another form. Because of this, experience is distorted and biased, awareness is false; only some perspectives are seen, not others. The knowledge that arises form this sort of awareness is not clear or comprehensive, it is not awareness of things as they really are.

In Buddhist practice, we try to establish ourselves correctly from the beginning. There must be awareness of things as they are, awareness with sati, mindfulness, neither delighting nor being averse. Experiences must be perceived with an aware mind, the mind of a student or the mind of an observer, not with a mind that is liking or disliking. In brief, there are two ways to do this:

1. Cognizing by seeing the truth: to be aware of things as they are, not to be swayed by the powers of delight and aversion. This is a pure kind of awareness, bare perception of experience without the addition of value-judgements. It is referred to in the scriptures as "perceiving just enough for the development of wisdom (˝ana)," just enough to know and understand the experience as it is, and for the presence of mindfulness (sati). Specifically, this is to see things according to their causes and conditions.

2. Cognizing in a beneficial way: that is, cognizing in conjunction with a skillful value, one that will be useful, rather than one that caters to sense desires. This is to perceive experiences in such a way as to be able to make use of them all, both the liked and the disliked.

This second kind of knowing can be enlarged on thus: experience is a natural function of life, but in order for the mind to benefit from experiences, we must perceive them in the proper way. There must be a conscious attempt to perceive experiences in a way that is beneficial in solving problems and leading to personal development. Otherwise, awareness will be merely a tool for either satisfying or frustrating sense-desires, and any benefit will be lost. With this kind of awareness, we perceive experiences in such a way as to make use of them. Whether experiences are pleasant, unpleasant, comfortable or not, they can all be used in a beneficial way. It all depends on whether we learn how to perceive them properly or not.

In the context of this book, where the object is knowledge of the truth, we will emphasize the first kind of awareness. In this awareness, if the wrong channels are avoided, the effects of delight and aversion do not occur, and awareness will be of the learning variety.

Clear awareness of sense data is very important. Learning must begin at the first moment of awareness -- cognizing in order to learn, not in order to indulge in like or dislike, or to feed sense desires. Although science may not openly speak about or emphasize this method, it is essential if the aim is to perceive the truth.

The second factor in attaining knowledge is right thinking. This means thinking that is structured, reasoned and in harmony with causes and conditions. In Buddhist scriptures many ways of thinking, collectively known as yoniso-manasikara, or intelligent reflection, are mentioned. Intelligent reflection is an important factor in the development of Right View, understanding in accordance with reality. It is to see things according to their causes and conditions, or to understand the principle of causes and conditions. Some of the ways of intelligent reflection mentioned in the texts are:

a. Searching for causes and conditions: This kind of thinking was of prime importance in the Buddha's own enlightenment. For example, when the Buddha investigated the experience of pleasure and pain, he asked himself, "On what do these feelings of pleasure and pain depend? By what are they conditioned?" He saw that sense contact is the condition for feeling. Then, asking himself, "By what is sense contact conditioned?" the Buddha saw that the six sense bases are the condition for sense contact, and so on. This is an example of thinking according to causes and conditions.

b. Thinking by way of analysis: Life as a human organism can be analyzed into two main constituents, body and mind. Body and mind can both be further analyzed. Mind, for example, can be analyzed into vedana (feeling), sa˝˝a (perception), sankhara (volitional activities), and vi˝˝ana (consciousness),[**] and each of these categories can be further divided into even smaller constituents. Feeling, for example, can be divided into three kinds, five kinds, six kinds and more. Thinking in this way is called "thinking by way of analysis," which is a way of breaking up the overall picture or system so that the causes and conditions involved can be more easily seen.

c. Thinking in terms of benefit and harm: This is to look at the quality of things, both their benefit and their harm, rather than looking exclusively at their benefit or their harm. Most people tend to see only the benefits of things that they like, and only the faults of the things they don't like, but Buddhism encourages us to look at things from all perspectives, to see both the benefit and the harm in them.

These different kinds of thinking (altogether, ten are mentioned in the scriptures) are known as yoniso-manasikara, a very important part of the Buddhist way to truth. In its broadest sense, thinking also includes the way we perceive things, and so it also includes the level of first awareness, and, like those forms of awareness, can also be divided into two main groups -- that is, thinking in order to see the truth, and thinking in a way that is beneficial.

The third method for finding knowledge used in Buddhism is that of verification through personal experience. One of the important principles of Buddhism is that the truth can be known and verified through direct experience (sanditthiko, paccattam veditabbo vi˝˝uuhi). Note, for example, the Kalamasutta mentioned earlier, in which the Buddha advises the Kalamas not to simply believe in things, but, "when you have seen for yourself which conditions are skillful and which unskillful, then strive to develop the skillful ones and to give up the unskillful." This teaching clearly illustrates practice based on personal experience.

The Buddha's life story recounts that he used this method throughout his practice. When he first left his palace in search of enlightenment, he practiced according to the methods prevalent at that time -- asceticism, yoga, trances and the rest. When he later went to live alone in the forest, the practices he undertook were all ways of experimenting. For example, the Buddha is recorded as recounting how he went to live alone in wild jungles so that he could experiment with fear. In the deep hours of the night a branch would crack and fear would arise. The Buddha would always look for the causes of the fear. No matter what posture he happened to be in when fear arose, he would maintain that posture until he had overcome the fear. (That is, if he was walking he would continue to walk until his fear subsided; if he was sitting, standing or lying down he would continue to sit, stand or lie down until his fear subsided.) Most people would have run for their lives, but the Buddha didn't run. He stayed still until he had overcome the problem. Another example of the Buddha's experimenting was his experimenting with good and bad thoughts until he was able to give up unskillful thoughts.

The Buddha used the method of personal experience throughout his practice. Later, when he was teaching his disciples, he taught them to assess the teacher closely before believing him, because faith must always be a vehicle for the development of wisdom. The Buddha taught to closely assess teachers, even the Buddha himself, both from the perspective of whether he was teaching the truth, and also in the sense of the purity of the teacher's intentions.

The teacher's knowledge can be tested by considering the plausibility of the teaching. The teacher's intentions can be tested by considering the teacher's intentions in teaching: Does he teach out of desire for a personal reward? Is he looking for anything other than the benefit of the listener? Such assessment and evaluation should continue through all the levels of the teacher-disciple relationship.

Then there is the teaching of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which emphasizes insight meditation. When we are practising insight meditation, we must always consider and reflect on the experiences that come into our awareness, as they arise. Whether a pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling arises, whether the mind is depressed or elated, the Buddha taught to look into it and note its arising, its faring and its passing away.

Even in the highest stages of practice, when assessing to see whether one is enlightened or not, we are told to look directly into our own hearts, to see whether there is still greed, hatred and delusion or not, rather than looking for special signs or miracles.

Because the emphasis and field of research in Buddhism and science differ in terms of observation, experiment and verification, results in the two fields will differ. Science strives to observe events solely in the physical universe, through the five senses, with the objective of manipulating the external physical world. In the language of Buddhism we might say that science specializes in the fields of utuniyama (physical laws) and bijaniyama (biological laws). Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes the study of the human organism, accepting experiences through all the six senses, including the mind. The objective of Buddhist practice is to attain the highest good and an understanding of the truth of nature. Even before the objective is reached, there is correction of problems and progress in human development. In Buddhist terminology we would say that Buddhism has its strength in the fields of kammaniyama (moral laws) and cittaniyama (psychic laws).

If it were possible to incorporate the respective fields of expertise of both science and Buddhism, to bring the fruits of their labors together, we might arrive at a balanced way for leading human development to a higher level.

Differences in methods

While on the subject of the three methods for finding knowledge, I would like to look at the differences between these methods in Buddhism and in science.

Firstly, science uses the technique of amassing knowledge in order to find truth. This amassing of knowledge is completely divorced from concerns of life-style, whereas in Buddhism, the method of attaining knowledge is part of the way of life. Science has no concern with life-style, it seeks truth for its own sake, but in Buddhism, method is part of the way of life -- in fact it is the way of life. Consider, for example, the effect of clear awareness, without the bias of delight and loathing, on the quality of life. The Buddhist search for knowledge has great worth in itself, regardless of whether or not the goal is attained.

Science takes its data exclusively from the experiences arising through the five senses, while Buddhism includes the experiences of the sixth sense, the mind -- a sense which science does not acknowledge. Buddhism states that the sixth sense is a verifiable truth. However, verification can only really be done through the respective senses from which that data arose. For instance, to verify a taste we must use the tongue; to verify volume of sound we must use the ear, not the eye. If we want to verify colors, we don't use our ears. The sense base which verifies sense data must be compatible with the kind of data that is being verified.

If the sixth sense is not recognized, we will be deprived of an immense amount of sense data, because there is much experience which arises exclusively in the mind. There are, for example, many experiences within the mind which can be immediately experienced and verified, such as love, hate, anger, and fear. These things cannot be verified or experienced through other sense organs. If we experience love, we ourselves know our own mind, we can verify it for ourselves. When there is fear, or a feeling of anger, or feelings of comfort, peace, or contentment, we can know them directly in our own minds. Therefore, in Buddhism we give this sixth sense, the mind and its thinking, a prominent role in the search for knowledge or truth.

Science resorts to instruments designed for the other five senses, mainly the eyes and ears, such as the encephalogram, to study the thinking process. Scientists tell us that in the future they'll be able to tell what people are thinking simply by using a machine, or by analyzing the chemicals secreted by the brain. These things do have a factual basis, but the truths that they are likely to reveal will probably be like Sir Arthur Eddington's "shadow world of symbols." They will not be the truth, but shadows of the truth. Scientific truth, like the scientific method, is faulty, because it breaches one of the rules of observation: the instruments do not correspond with the data. As long as this is so, science will have to continue observing shadows of reality for a long time to come.

Now this sixth sense, the mind, is also very important in science. The scientific method, from the very beginnings right up to and including experimentation and conclusion, has developed through this sixth sense. Before any other senses can be used, the scientist must utilize thinking. He must organize a plan, a method of verification, and he must establish an hypothesis. All of these activities are mental processes, which are dependent on the sixth sense, the mind. Even in practical application, the mind must be following events, taking notes. Moreover, the mind is the arbitrator, the judge of whether or not to accept the data that arise during the experiment.

The final stages of scientific enquiry, the assessment and conclusions of the experiment, the formulation of a theory and so on, are all thought processes. We can confidently say that the theories of science are all results of thinking, they are fruits of the sixth sense, which is the headquarters of all the other senses.

Buddhism acknowledges the importance of the sixth sense as a channel through which events can be directly experienced. The truth of the mind is a verifiable cause and effect process. It is subject to the laws of nature. Even though it may seem very intricate and difficult to follow, Buddhism teaches that the mind conforms to the stream of causes and conditions, just like any other natural phenomenon. In the material world, or the world of physics, it is recognized that all things exist according to causes and conditions, but in cases where the conditions are extremely intricate, it is very difficult to predict or follow events. A simple example is weather prediction, which is recognized as a very difficult task because there are so many inconstants. The sequence of causes and conditions within the mind is even more complex than the factors involved in the weather, making prediction of results even more difficult.

Human beings are a part of nature which contain the whole of nature within them. If people were able to open their eyes and look, they would be able to attain the truth of nature as a direct experience. Using scientific instruments, extensions of the five senses, is a roundabout way of proceeding. It can only verify truth on some levels, just enough to conquer nature and the external world (to an extent), but it cannot lead mankind to the total truth of reality.


Footnotes

[*] Systematic attention, wise consideration, critical reflection. [Back to text]

[**] These are the four mental khandhas which, together with rupa, or material form, go to make up the whole of conditioned existence. [Back to text]

3. Rene Descartes, quoted by Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World, (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992) p. 148. [Back to text]

-oOo-

[Taken from Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto., Toward Sustainable Science, A Buddhist Look at Trends in Scientific Development. (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1993), pp. 75-103].

-oOo-

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

 


Updated: 3-5-2000

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