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Buddhism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

Buddhism, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

Buddhist reflections on science are based on insights, doctrines, and practices that have evolved from the teachings and life of Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563486 b.c.e.), the founder of Buddhism. The assumption that reality is in constant flux, together with the principle of prati¯tyasamutpa¯da (dependent co-arising or interdependence), the primacy of mind, and a holistic appreciation of health and the world, are a few of the ideas from which Buddhists have understood and critiqued science, its methods, and its conclusions. Prati¯tyasamutpa¯da articulates the Buddha's Weltanschauung and is the basis for his teachings. The subsequent development of Buddhist thought and practice explores different facets of this insight.

Prati¯tyasamutpa¯da and science

A compound of pratitya (meaning "based on" or "dependent on") and samutpada (meaning "to spring up together"), prati¯tyasamutpa¯da affirms the temporal efficacy between a cause and its result. This efficacy underlies the belief in karmic retribution and reward. The principle also recognizes the importance of conditions or indirect causes in generating a result; and explains the origin, persistence, disintegration, and disappearance of existents. Prati¯tyasamutpa¯da further asserts the formal and spatial reciprocity of all existents. This reciprocity pertains not just to physical entities but also mind (or cognition) and apprehended object. Mind and object are both the cause and the result of the other's existence.

Most Buddhists are open to the discoveries and theories of science, and they seek common ground between the findings of modern science and Buddhist doctrines and beliefs. Thus, though Darwinism met great resistance in the West, the Japanese, for example, deeply ingrained in the Buddhist acceptance of transience, found no difficulty with the concept that humans evolved from lesser forms of life. Transcience is an indisputable thesis for Buddhists. Buddhists examine in great detail the process of change, its phases and their duration, and its practical consequences.

The flowering of Buddhism in the West coincided with the interest in science that emerged from the post-Darwinian need to ground religious belief in new scientific understanding of reality. Moreover, Buddhists understand that objects and individuals are comprised of an ever-changing composite of elements of reality called dharmas. Originally dharma referred to social norms and responsibilities. Buddhists broadened its usage to mean the Good, Truth, Teaching, and Law. Dharma (meaning, literally, "thing") is peculiar to Buddhism and in early Buddhism designated the enduring building blocks of transient phenomena. This was an assertion that later, Maha¯ya¯n thinkers, came to dismiss. Dharma also refers to mind and its cognitive functions. Although distinct and irreducible, dharmas relate to other dharmas in time and space. The consideration of the momentary spatial and temporal intersection of dharmas prompted Chinese Buddists to further expand the meaning of dharma to include the notion of "event."

The Buddha left a legacy of "benevolent skepticism" of the unproven, an appreciation for relative values, and an empirico-rational problem solving method. As such, Buddhist "truths" are to be discarded if and when they are no longer beneficial. However, investigations into mind and the natural world are not ends in themselves, but are pursued for the purpose of relieving suffering, and many Asian Buddhists are troubled by certain advances of the biological sciences, such as cloning and organ transplant, that challenge traditional views of life, death, and family lineage.

Beliefs and doctrine

Siddhartha Gautama began his spiritual journey with the question of human suffering. After six years of spiritual exercises Gautama realized the Dharma, the truth of prati¯tyasamutpa¯da, and became the Buddha, which means "Enlightened One." Buddha awakened to the reality that all things, beings, and events, are mutually dependent and irrevocably interrelated. Prati¯tyasamutpa¯da can be understood as a further development of the law of karma. Karma, literally "action" by living beings, explains the creation, persistence, and disintegration of the universe (loka-dha¯tu ). Later, the Avatamsaka su¯tra and other Maha¯ya¯na Buddhist documents, which emerged in the first and second century, claimed that the universe is a creation and projection of mind. Existentially, karma accounts for an individual's present life situation, which was determined by the moral quality that his or her actions generated in the past. Similarly, deeds performed in one's present life determine one's station in the next.

Mahayana Buddhists accepted the early Buddhist understanding of the temporal efficacy of karma, but proceeded to expand prati¯tyasamutpa¯da to describe the formal and spatial relationship between and among dharmas. The relationship of a single dharma with the world, as well as with every other dharma, is outlined by the doctrine of fajie yuanqi (universal prati¯tyasamutpa¯da ). In a mutually dependent world, each dharma assists in the creation and support of the world and every other dharma. At the same time, each dharma is supported by all other dharmas.

Fazang (643712), the third patriarch of the Chinese Huayen school, detailed the temporal and spatial relationships among all dharmas with the "Ten Subtle Principles of the Unimpeded Fusion of Prati¯tyasamutpa¯da," which is discussed in his Huayen tanxuanji, a commentary on the Huayenching (Avatamsaka su¯tra ). The Ten Principles describe the relationship between each dharma and every other dharma. Similarly, an individual is never conceptualized in isolation, but as part of a dynamic and ever-evolving society of other persons and the universe. Morally, prati¯tyasamutpa¯da engenders the virtues of responsibility and gratitude. More concretely, this vision of interdependence is true for the human person. Health is understood to be a balance among all the bodily functions and an integration of body and mind. The health of the individual is intimately linked with the health of society and the environment. While Buddhists are primarily interested in karma and prati¯tyasamutpa¯da as a principle of moral and spiritual causality, these notions are also used to explain the formation of and interactions in the physical and cognitive worlds.

Though Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists differ in their understanding of prati¯tyasamutpa¯da, they agree that change is the nature of reality, that suffering is endemic to the human condition, and that the realization of Nirvana results in the transcendence of change and suffering. Both traditions accept ana¯tman (selflessness), a notion that the Buddha reasoned reflected the reality of the constantly changing relationships among the five skandhas (aggregates)i.e., form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousnessthat constitute the psychological self. The skandhas are not substantial or eternally existing forms. The Buddha never denied there was an ontological self.

Theravada, the representative tradition of present-day South and Southeast Asia, and Sarvastivada, a once influential non-Mahayana school, further refined these five skandhas into seventy-five dharmas, or ontological elements of reality. Yogacara, a Mahayana tradition, lists a hundred dharmas. Systematic summarizations of these dharmas and their causal relationships are articulated by the fifth-century Theravadin master Buddhghosa in the Visuddhimagga, and by Vasubandhu (c. 400480), a Sarvastivada apologist, in the Abhidharmakośáa¯stra. In contrast, Mahayana, which represents the tradition of present day North and East Asia, proposed a more radical view, namely that dharmas themselves are devoid of essential essence. This view is proclaimed in the Prajñaparamita-sutra (Heart Sutra ): Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

Attitudes toward science

Assessment of the scientific method. Buddhists do not reject the efficacy and benefits of science; they nonetheless critique the scientific method and the validity of the knowledge that is derived from science. Appealing to the Abhidharmakośaśa¯stra's classification of four conditions, Izumi Yoshiharu faults the narrowness of observation employed by the scientific method to explain the appearance of an event. The Abhidharmakośaśa¯stra, which enumerates, in addition to the four conditions, six causes and five results, states in sum that the occurrence of an event is facilitated by dominant causes and contributory conditions. A dominant cause directly contributes to the fruition of a karmic event. For example, an acorn would be the dominant or direct cause of an oak tree because only an acorn can become an oak tree. Contributory conditions include sunlight and soil conditions, as well as adequate rainfall to nurture and sustain the acorn as it transforms from a sprout to a sapling and into a mature tree. Both causes and conditions are necessary for an event or being to appear. In addition, the Abhidharmakośaśa¯stra cites the necessity of passively efficacious karmic causes and conditions that do not prevent or hinder the occurrence of a result. For example, the violets in a garden have no direct relationship to the phases of the moon, but in so far as their blossoms do not prevent its rotation, they are considered causal conditions. The Visuddhimagga, which lists twelve kinds of karma into three categories, details a similar understanding.

Buddhists also question the validity of objective observation, which presumes an unchanging observer and phenomenon, since realitythings and beingsare in constant flux. Not only does an observer continually change, but different observers will observe the same phenomena differently. Further, Buddhists have determined through their meditative exercises that perception determines the way objects and events seem to exist. Taking their cue from such documents as the Avatamsaka su¯tra and Prajña¯sa¯madhi su¯tra, Buddhist thinkers such as Maitreya (c. 270350), Asanga (c. 310390), Vasubandu, and others from the Yoga¯ca¯ra tradition argued that the reality one perceives and knows is a transformation of one's mind. When a person sees a red rose, what the mind perceives are neural signals that have been converted from light waves that strike the retina of the eyes. Subsequently, the mind interprets and cognizes these signals. Buddhists do not deny the reality of the physical world. Additionally, one's moods and temperament, as well as one's physical and environmental conditions, influence how one sees the world. Perception varies from moment to moment and differs from person to person.

This mutuality between the observer and observed preoccupied early Buddhist and Yoga¯ca¯ra thinkers who explored in great detail the mutuality of mind and its object of perception. In the twentieth century, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg arrived at a similar conclusion in quantum physics. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle claims that on the subatomic level, one cannot know simultaneously with precision the velocity and position of an entity. The observer changes the very nature of the "reality" that is being measured.

The Buddhist doctrine of prati¯tysamutpa¯da also challenges the validity of scientific principles or any other paradigm as the arbitrator of truth. Science and its method survey only a limited spectrum of reality experienced by human beings. Prati¯tysamutpa¯da, which recognizes the importance of every dharma, validates multiple centers and shifting paradigms. The tenth of Fazang's Ten Principles, the principle of complete accommodation of principal and secondary dharmas, (zhuban yuanming jude men ) describes the rationale for shifting paradigms. In an interdependent world, all dharmas are mutually supportive and mutually dependent. When a dharma is singled out, it becomes the principal dharma, and the remaining dharmas are relegated to a secondary status. Every dharma has the potential of alternately assuming the principal or secondary role. On a given occasion, a dharma may be the principal; on another, a second dharma may assume the principal role.

This idea of the shifting perspectives of an event is illustrated by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon (1950). The "truth" is relative to a particular storyteller: the murdered samurai who speaks through a medium, his violated wife, the bandit, and the woodcutter who witnessed the event. Each retelling emphasizes the storyteller's version, while relegating other perspectives to a secondary role. To be truly objective, one must see an event from all possible vantage points. Shifting vantage points offer alternative perspectives of reality. One never fully discovers the nature of reality, which may remain forever ambiguous. Scientific paradigms, as Thomas Kuhn argued in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, are forever shifting and riddled with unexamined prejudices and presumptions. Science, which is a visual rendering technique perfected during the European Renaissance, sees a view from a single-fixed point, and, as such, it is hardly objective. As early as the third century b.c.e., Na¯ga¯juna (c. 150250 b.c.e., one of the primary thinker of Maha¯ya¯na Buddhism and founder of the Madhyamaka school, had already established that all conceptual categories of understanding distort reality.

Environmental science. Buddhism shares a holistic paradigm of nature with the environmental sciences. The doctrine of prati¯itysamutpa¯da sees the world as a single whole in which sentient life and the world that supports it are irrevocably intertwined. Buddhist "teachings emphasize the importance of coexisting with nature, rather than conquering it. . . . The very core of Buddhism evolves around compassion, encouraging a better respect for and tolerance of every human being and living thing sharing the planet" (Kabilsingh, p, 8). Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Williams's Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds, a collection of papers presented at the 1996 proceedings of Earth Charter, set forth the Buddhist vision of ethical principles concerning the environment for the twenty-first century.

Organ transplant. Buddhist reflections of biotechnological advances such as gene therapy, cloning, and organ transplants, which have pushed the traditional boundaries of life, death, and personal identity, are grounded on the meaning of sentience and life. Buddhist medical theory is based on presuppositions of transience, the composite nature of persons, and a holistic understanding of the individual. Buddhists understand human life to be a fortuitous event that involves the coming together of innumerable causes and conditions. Death is the dissolution of the temporary coalescing of mind and body. Life is identified with sentience, which includes feelings and in its broadest sense encompasses animals, plants, and inanimate objects.

Like A¯yurveda, the classic system of Indian medicine, on which it is based, Buddhist medicine assumes that the living body consists of a substratum of three humoral fluidsphlegm, bile, and windthat circulate throughout interconnected channels of the body to ensure vital life functions. Health constitutes the proper balance and circulation of these humors. Buddhists learned long ago that a healthy body is required before one can discipline the mind for spiritual exercises. Buddhists have identified life with cardiopulmonary activity. Consequently, the absence of brain activity, the criterion used for organ transplants, does not necessarily signify the death of the person. Many Buddhists are of the opinion that as long as the body is warm, there is life, and they have resisted the harvesting of organs. Additionally, some think that a body, though cold, may feel pain when incisions are made to remove its organs.

Another pervasive attitude against organ transplants is the belief that life is impermanent and death is inevitable. Such efforts to extend life disrupt an individual's karmic life span. Moreover, organ transplants are possible only at the expense of another person's life, a violation of the precept to abstain from taking and profiting from another life. Consequently, some Buddhists advocate the development and use of artificial organs. However, those who favor transplants argue that the gift of life is the greatest gift an individual can give.

While Buddhist doctrine offers ample support for the reluctance of organ transplants among East Asian Buddhists, the Confucian notion of filial piety, which has been incorporated into their ritual and socio-cultural practices, is also influential. The opening lines of the Confucian text Hsiao Ching (Classic on filiality) states, "Filial piety is the basis of virtue and the source of our teachings. We receive our body, our hair, and skin from our parents, and we dare not destroy them." Chinese funerary practices insist that a person should be buried with every part of his or her body. Such reasoning sees the donation of one's organs to be an unfilial act. Receiving the heart of another person raises questions of family identity. The Japanese reluctance against organ transplants and organ donation is rooted in a pre-Buddhist notion of personhood, which holds that physical death marks the beginning of the spiritual life of a person. The spirit can mature or proceed to ancestorhood only if the body is interred with all of it parts.

Cloning. As of 2002, Buddhist reflections on cloning and genetic engineering have been few and mostly cautionary. Citing the sanctity of life, some Buddhists are concerned over the unforeseen consequences that biotechnology will have on human life and the environment. Others find repugnant the idea of cloning a human being to produce organs for use in transplantation. However, invoking the Buddhist assumption that reality is in constant flux, the birth of Dolly, the first successfully cloned sheep, as well as the prospect of a human clone, are part of evolving reality. The birth of Dolly also raises issues of the continuity of family lineage. Genetic manipulation brings into question the relationship between prior generations, their progeny, and future generations.

Cognitive sciences. Buddhists have expended great energy in investigating and speculating on the nature of mind and cognitive functions. Psycho-spiritual phenomena experienced during meditative practice are the basis for the speculations and systemization of mind, mental functions, and the world. Further, the belief in successive rebirths means that mind is not an emergent property of life, but is one of the conditions for it. Thus the Buddhist would say, "I am, therefore I think." Invoking the theory of karma and the idea of successive lives, the energy of consciousness from a previous being is a necessary condition for the arising and development of life in the womb.

For the Yoga¯ca¯rins, mind and object (psychic impressions of the objective world) arise together. Since the mid 1970s, there has been a heightened interest in Buddhism and the neurosciences by academics in the West. The Dalai Lama and a number of neurologists, biologists, psychiatrists, physicists, and philosophers have organized "Mind and Life" meetings centering on the nature of mind. One result of these discussions was the publication of The Embodied Mind (1991) by Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. They explore the structure of the subjective experience through cybernetics, brain science, psychology, and artificial intelligence using Tibetan Abhidharma categories of mind and mental functions. James H. Austin's Zen and the Brain (1998) weaves brain research with his Zen experiences.


Buddhism's interest in science is essentially therapeuticto relieve human suffering and to care for the earth. Though Buddhists are open to the discoveries of change, Asian Buddhists were almost universally wary of improper use of new knowledge, and thus have been preoccupied with the ethical issues generated by organ transplant and cloning. In contrast, Western scholars and Western converts to Buddhism tended to explore the implications of Buddhist ideas. Finally, different systems of knowledge are built on differing assumptions of reality, which in turn lead to different notions of reality and categories of understanding. For the Buddhist, Western science and its assumptions are just one of many ways of understanding reality. Most Buddhists, while acknowledging the scientific and technological domination of the West, continue to find correspondence and derive legitimacy for their vision of reality. Perhaps, as Izumi suggests, a science based on the complex notions of causality of the Abhidharmakośaśa¯stra might lead to alternative methods of observation, experimentation, and theories of reality (Izumi 1999, p. 63). An alternative science and methodology, for example, can perhaps be extrapolated from currently practiced Tibetan Buddhist medicine, which still preserves much of its original paradigm.

See also Biotechnology; Cloning; Cybernetics; Darwin, Charles; Ecology; Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Gene Therapy; Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle; Karma; Neurosciences; Paradigms; Quantum Field Theory


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