In the 1970s, in The Tao Of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, Fritjof Capra expanded on some of Bohr’s and Oppenheimer's tentative impressions. He argued that modern science and Eastern mysticism offer parallel insights into the ultimate nature of reality. But, beyond this, Capra suggested that the profound harmony between these concepts as expressed in systems language and the corresponding ideas of Eastern mysticism was impressive evidence for a remarkable claim: That mystical philosophy offers the most consistent background to our modern scientific theories.
In the 1970s this notion came as something of a bombshell. Suddenly religion and science reunited—though in a rather unexpected way—Eastern religion and Western science. This echoed the excitement of a hundred years previous that Carus and other late Victorians sensed in Buddhism's potential. Then, however, the emphasis was on how Buddhism could help establish religion on a more scientific basis; now, it seems the other way around—that science is seeking Buddhism to stake out its spiritual or metaphysical claims.
Regardless, those familiar with Buddhist texts immediately saw (or thought they saw) the correctness of Capra's revelation. Certain Buddhist scriptures in fact seemed most solidly to confirm the linking of science and Dharma. The most oft-quoted is the famous teaching called the Kalama Sutta.
In this short discourse, we find the Buddha in his wanderings coming upon the village of the Kalamas. Religious seekers themselves, the Kalamas were bewildered by the plethora of divergent philosophies and teachers vying for their attention. They proceeded to ask the Buddha a series of questions. Here is the relevant portion of the text:
The Buddha once visited a small town called Kesaputta in the kingdom of Kosala. The inhabitants of this town were known by the common name Kalama. When they heard that the Buddha was in their town, the Kalamas paid him a visit, and told him:
"Sir, there are some recluses and brahmanas who visit Kesaputta. They explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines. Then come other recluses and brahmanas, and they, too, in their turn, explain and illumine only their own doctrines, and despise, condemn and spurn others' doctrines. But, for us, Sir, we have always doubt and perplexity as to who among these venerable recluses and brahmanas spoke the truth, and who spoke falsehood."
"Yes, Kalamas, it is proper that you have doubt, that you have perplexity, for a doubt has arisen in a matter which is doubtful. Now, look you Kalamas, do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, not by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up...And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them."
The Kalamas voiced their doubts, their perplexity in determining truth or falsehood, as a result of having been exposed to all the competing teachers and doctrines of India at the time: not unlike our modern world today. Each teacher, each school, expounded different and often conflicting notions of the truth. The Buddha's response was to set down a methodology that was in many ways ahead of its time in anticipating the skeptical empiricism of the modern scientific method.
He said, “Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Don’t be led by the authority even of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances”—all of which eliminate exclusive reliance on cultural convention, received tradition, and deductive speculation, as well as mere sense impressions. Also rejected were opinions and "seeming possibilities"—the stuff of preconceived bias and subjective imagination and fancy. (Some might argue that being "led by appearances" would include a narrow scientific method, at least as it has come to be popularly understood—i.e. an exaggerated reliance on natural phenomena as the only basis of what is true or real. It would also dismiss the equally exaggerated claim that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge.The Buddha even discounts blind faith in one's teacher.
So what's left? Here the Buddha lays out a subtle and quite unique epistemology: “Oh Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome and wrong and bad, then give them up. And when you know that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.” But how to interpret this key passage?
Many scholars and believers, both recently and at the turn of the century, jumped at this passage as confirmation that ancient Buddhist wisdom validates modern science. Early popularizers of Eastern religions in America like Anagarika Dharmapala, D. T. Suzuki, Paul Carus, and even Vedantists like Vivekananda, generally waxed enthusiastic about the compatibility of Eastern spirituality and Western science. They saw in passages like the Kalama Sutta proof positive that the Buddha prefigured the modern scientific outlook. Buddhism seemed eminently scientific: detached skeptical investigation of empirically testable phenomena; no faith, no dogma, no revelation. Experiments carried out by and confirmed by individuals regardless of time or place suggested "intersubjective testability"—one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. I do it, you do it; anyone can do it and obtain the same results. That Buddhism and science should be so nearly identical was understandably immensely appealing; it is also misleading.
While American thinkers and newly converted Western Buddhists thought they saw a natural fit between Buddhism and science, Buddhist teachers more steeped in the traditional discipline were less apologetic and often more critical of such facile comparisons. Two notable contemporary examples come to mind: Master Hsuan Hua, from the Mahayana tradition, and Wapola Rahula, a Theravada scholar-monk, both threw cold water on this notion.
The Venerable Hsuan Hua, a Ch'an and Tripitika master from China, arrived in America in the early 1960s to propagate the Dharma in the West. As he observed and studied the trends and currents of contemporary thought, he showed little enthusiasm for what seemed to him the exaggerated claims of modern science—theoretical or applied. He said, “Within the limited world of the relative, that is where science is. It’s not an absolute Dharma. Science absolutely cannot bring true and ultimate happiness to people, neither spiritually nor materially.” This is strong criticism that portrays science as a discipline limited to relative truths, and as an unsatisfactory way of life. In another essay, he wrote:
Look at modern science. Military weapons are modernized every day and are more and more novel every month. Although we call this progress, it’s nothing more than progressive cruelty. Science takes human life as an experiment, as child’s play, as it fulfills its desires through force and oppression.
In 1989, Venerable Walpola Rahula, a Theravadin monk from Sri Lanka, also warned that daily life is being permeated by science. He cautioned, “We have almost become slaves of science and technology; soon we shall be worshipping it.” His comments come well into the final decades of the twentieth century, when many people had in effect turned science into a religious surrogate. The Venerable monk observed, “Early symptoms are that they tend to seek support from science to prove the validity of our religions.” Walpola Rahula elaborated on this point:
We justify them [i.e. religions] and make them modern, up-to-date, respectable, and accessible. Although this is somewhat well intentioned, it is ill-advised. While there are some similarities and parallel truths, such as the nature of the atom, the relativity of time and space, or the quantum view of the interdependent, interrelated whole, all these things were developed by insight and purified by meditation.
Rahula's critique goes to the heart of the matter: the capitulation of religion to scientific positivism; the yielding of almost all competing schemes of values to the scientific juggernaut. Huston Smith, the eminent scholar on the worlds religions, recently said that the weakness of modern religions in the West stems from their successful accommodation to culture. The contribution that Buddhism and other religions can make to the spiritual crisis facing modern society, therefore, may not lie in their compatibility with science, but in their ability to offer something that science cannot.
More importantly, as Rahula argues, Dharma, or abiding spiritual truths, were discovered without the help of any external instrument. Rahula concluded, “It is fruitless, meaningless to seek support from science to prove religious truth. It is incongruous and preposterous to depend on changing scientific concepts to prove and support perennial religious truths.” Moreover, he echoes the deeper moral concerns expressed by Master Hua regarding the unexamined aims and consequences of the scientific endeavor:
Science is interested in the precise analysis and study of the material world, and it has no heart. It knows nothing about love or compassion or righteousness or purity of mind. It doesn’t know the inner world of humankind. It only knows the external, material world that surrounds us.
Rahula then suggests that the value of Buddhism redoubles, not as it can be made to seem more scientific, but in its reaffirming a different sensibility, an overarching and unyielding vision of humanity's higher potential. He concludes emphatically:
On the contrary, religion, particularly Buddhism, aims at the discovery and the study of humankind’s inner world: ethical, spiritual, psychological, and intellectual. Buddhism is a spiritual and psychological discipline that deals with humanity in total. It is a way of life. It is a path to follow and practice. It teaches man how to develop his moral and ethical character, which in Sanskrit is sila, and to cultivate his mind, samadhi, and to realize the ultimate truth, prajna wisdom, Nirvana.
Both of these eminent monks pre-date and, in many ways, stand outside the popularization and "Westernization" of Buddhism. Unlike the Western-leaning translators of Buddhism Carus, Suzuki, Dharmapala, et al., they emerged from a monastic discipline grounded in a more traditional understanding, one less enamored of modern science and more critical of Western philosophy. They would not so readily concur with Sir Edwin Arnold, who wrote in his best-selling Light of Asia (1879) that "between Buddhism and modern science there exists a close intellectual bond."
With this in mind, it would do well to take another look at the passage quoted above from the Kalama Sutta:
But O Kalamas, when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome (akusala), and wrong, and bad, then give them up...And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome (kusala) and good, then accept them and follow them.
These lines, I believe, hold the key to understanding the difference between Buddhism and modern science. The passage needs to be understood not simply as a nod to Western empiricism, but within a specific context of moral inquiry. This "knowing for yourself" locates knowledge ('scientia') firmly within the moral sphere, both in its aims and its outcomes. It employs a meditative form of insight to penetrate the ultimate nature of reality. It implies a concept quite foreign to modern science: that the knower and what is known, the subject and object, fact and value, are not merely non-dual, but that knowledge itself is inescapably influenced by our moral and ethical being. Perhaps this is exactly what Suzuki intuited was lacking in modern science when he wrote in 1959, "I now think that a religion based solely on science is not enough. There are certain 'mythological' elements in every one of us, which cannot be altogether lost in favor of science."
Regardless, none of this critical reassessment should come as a surprise to thoughtful Buddhists. The Shurangama Sutra clearly notes, "when the seed planted is crooked, the fruit will be distorted." The close link between intention and result, cause and effect, is central to all Buddhist philosophy. It should be obvious and expected that the very fabric of modern science, lacking as it does a firm grounding in the moral sphere, would result in deleterious discoveries and incomplete uses. Tragic examples abound attesting to the ill-fated marriage of scientific technology and human ignorance.
Nor, from a Buddhist perspective, can these examples be seen as unintended consequences or accidents—they are, rather, unavoidable and logical outcomes of a partial though powerful system of thought. There is nothing in science per se that would lead one to equate its advancement with increased social benefits and enhanced human values. And certainly the absence of ethical imperatives should alert any knowledgeable Buddhist to a fundamental flaw in equating the Eightfold Way with the practice of science. In fact, a close reading of the Buddhist sources, it seems, would lead one to question: Is science in itself sufficient for describing reality? Is it capable of meeting human needs?
Thus, the aforementioned Kalamas passage, depending on one's frame of reference, could be seen more as a critique of than a correspondence with modern science. The key to understanding this difference lies in a correct Buddhist interpretation of "know for yourselves," "wholesome," and "unwholesome." As Walpola Rahula indicates, these concepts are part of a specific and disciplined form or methodology of self-cultivation which, when diligently practiced, leads to true knowledge and wisdom. This method is referred to in Buddhism as the "three non-outflow science" (san wu lou xue), and consists of morality, concentration, and wisdom (Sanskrit: sila, samadhi, prajna).
The ethical component cannot be overemphasized, as "seeing things as they really are" entails an indispensable preliminary: "purification of the mind." This clarity of mind and concentrated awareness in turn begins with and must be sustained by moral conduct. The Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification), an early Buddhist manual compiled in the 4th century by Buddhagosha, lists the Buddha's "science" of inquiry as an interrelated three-step exercise of virtue, meditation, and insight. This is quite a different approach to knowledge than a modern-day scientist would presume or pursue. It is interesting that these ancient wisdom traditions considered moral purity as the absolute prerequisite of true knowledge, and that we today regard it as immaterial, if not downright irrelevant. Thus, fundamental and qualitatively different views of what constitutes knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge separate Buddhism and science.
Aspects of the above epistemological formula appear throughout the Asian religious traditions. For example, Taoism speaks of cultivating the mind (hsin), regarding it as the repository of perceptions and knowledge—it rules the body, it is spiritual and like a divinity that will abide "only where all is clean." Thus the Kuan Tzu (4 to 3rd century B.C.) cautions that "All people desire to know, but they do not inquire into that whereby one knows." It specifies:
What all people desire to know is that (i.e., the external world),
But their means of knowing is this (i.e. oneself);
How can we know that?
Only by the perfection of this. 1
Are we studying ourselves when we think we are studying nature? Will the "new science" eventually come to Kuan Tzu's conclusion that only “by perfecting this," can we truly know that? These ancient writings raise an interesting question: How accurate and objective can be the observation if the observer is flawed and imperfect? Is the relationship between "consciousness" and matter as distinct as we are inclined to believe?
The "perfection" mentioned above refers to the cultivation of moral qualities and in Buddhist terminology, the elimination of "afflictions" (klesa) such as greed, anger, ignorance, pride, selfishness, and emotional extremes. It seems less an alteration of consciousness than a purification and quieting of the mind. Mencius talks of obtaining an "unmoving mind" at age forty, again referring to the cultivation of an equanimity resulting from the exercise of moral sense. He distinguished between knowledge acquired from mental activity and knowledge gained from intuitive insight. This latter knowledge he considered superior as it gives noumenal as well as phenomenal understanding. Advaita Vedanta, the philosophical teaching of Hinduism, as well emphasizes that jnana (knowledge) requires a solid basis in ethics (Dharma). Chuang Tzu, spoke of acquiring knowledge of "the ten thousand things" (i.e., of all nature) through virtuous living and practicing stillness: "to a mind that is 'still' the whole universe surrenders." 2 Even Confucius's famous passage concerning the highest learning (da xue) connects utmost knowledge of the universe to the cultivation of one's person and the rectification of one's mind. 3
The challenge from these eminent Buddhist teachers to the nearly ex cathedra authority generally accorded to science should give pause to anyone attempting a facile identification of Buddhism with science. Their aims and methods, though tantalizingly parallel, upon closer analysis diverge. Correspondences do exist, but fundamental differences inhere as well. To gloss over them not only encourages sloppy thinking, but approaches hubris. So we must ask: to what extent is our conception of science as the arbiter of knowledge culture-bound, even myopic? Could our near total faith in science blind us to an inherent bias in such a stance: we presume that the logic, norms, and procedures of the scientific method are universally applicable and their findings are universally valid. Science may not only have limited relevance for interpreting Buddhism, but may distort our very understanding of its meaning.
Thus, in a quest to reach an easy and elegant reconciliation of faith and reason, we may unwittingly fall prey to "selective perception"—noticing and embracing only those elements of Buddhism that seem consonant with our way of thinking and giving short shrift to the rest. Overplaying the similarities between science and Buddhism can lead into a similar trap, where our dominant Western thought-way (science) handicaps rather than helps us to understand another worldview. In Buddhism, this is called "the impediment of what is known."
It may prove more salutary to allow Buddhism to "rub us the wrong way" — to challenge our preconceptions and habitual ways, to remain strange and different from anything to which we have been accustomed. To borrow a metaphor from Henry Clarke Warren, we might enjoy a "walking in Fairyland" in shoes that do not quite fit:
A large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism has arisen from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All the ideas, the modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about, have always seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been accustomed, that I felt all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the charm that the Oriental thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they so seldom fit into Western categories. 4
1 ArthurWaley, The Way And Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 47.
2 ibid, 58.
3 James Legge, Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean [Translated by James Legge], (New York: Dover, 1893, 1971), 4-7.
4 Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism In Translations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1896), 283-84.