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Buddhism, History of Science and Religion

Buddhism, History of Science and Religion

The fundamental Buddhist ideas of interdependence and impermanence are based on a rational apprehension of the world that can be likened to the modern scientific method. Because of this basic shared approach, Buddhism and science doe not come into serious conflict. The primary concern of Buddhism is to relieve human spiritual suffering and not to clarify the laws of nature. Thus Buddhists have freely adopted the practical scientific technologies of each epoch and place. For Buddhists, scientific technology is neither good nor evil. However, Buddhism recognizes that a self-centered application of technology can harm the integrity of other life forms, and hard to these can in turn harm human beings. Buddhism emphasizes the holistic relationship of life and the harmonious coexistence of all beings and all things.

Essence of Buddhism

Buddhism was founded in northernwestern India by Gautama Buddha (463383 b.c.e.), who realized the truth of Prati¯tya-samutpa¯da (interdependent co-arising). For Buddhists, interdependence means that all living beings are born through the intersection of causes and conditions, and all lives are supported by the existence of others. The term conveys two meanings. First, interdependence is a fundamental principle of universe. Though the world is full of distinctions, each being exists and evolves in harmony with the vast network of interdependence that sustains all life. The world is an interconnected, interdynamic, cooperative whole, not a collection of separate, oppositional parts. Buddhists understand that no being is unconditional, permanently fixed, or immutable. Nothing exists by itself. Second, interdependence is not a mechanical law of nature but is the reality of compassionate relationships. Awakening to interdependence cultivates a sense of consideration towards all beings. All beings are worthy of respect due to their mutuality. Each being is an irreplaceable existence of the universe. Buddhism teaches one how to see all sentient beings as fellow living beings and cultivate the empathic mind of oneness with others. In the Sutta-nipata, one of the oldest Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha discusses his view toward life as follows:

Whatever living beings there be: feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, short, small or large, without exception; seen or unseen, those dwelling far or near, those who are born or those who are to be born, may all beings be happy. Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. (The Sutta-nipata, p. 16)

The Buddha, according to this passage, everywhere and at all times respected all beings equally, without discrimination, and wished them happiness. Therefore, human beings should be aware of the truth of coexisting with other life forms through mutual support and should cultivate compassion toward other beings. The ultimate goal of Buddhist is to save both the self and others.

The relationship between Buddhism and science

Historically, Buddhists have placed highest value on a supermundane wisdom that is beyond secular attachments and have encouraged compassionate acts toward all living beings. For Buddhists, there was no need to take part in practices such as sacrificial rituals, divination, or astrology, which have been popular in the societies of the various countries Buddhism has entered. The natural sciences also never became a significant part of Buddhist practice, although Buddhists were eager to introduce into their practices the knowledge of medicine and pharmacology, as well as more practical scientific technologies from paper and ink making to metallurgy, sculpture, and architecture. Such practical knowledge provided them with advanced skills in building temples, carving and casting statues, and printing scriptures, all of which helped in spreading the teaching of Buddhism. It is well known that the concepts of zero and fractions were first discovered in India. The discovery of zero is considered to be related to the Buddhist concept of impermanence or anatman (no-self).

Science focuses on the external world and seeks to analyze objectively the phenomena of the universe, including human beings, to clarify the principle behind each phenomenon and to apply its discoveries to society to bring comfort to human lives. On the other hand, Buddhist teaching focuses mainly on the inner self as it faces the reality of suffering. The Buddhist path aims at pinpointing and eradicating causes of suffering for the sake of the accomplishment of the totality of the individual human being and that being's peace of mind. Therefore, Buddhism, which focuses on the individual, did not develop a standpoint of observing the universe and natural phenomena objectively, and Buddhism did not attempt to formulate a mechanical model of the universe.

Buddhist cosmology is based on the concept that nature and human beings are not mutually opposing, but are harmoniously interdependent. Therefore, nature, or the external world, has never been considered as merely material existence within the cosmology of Buddhism. One of the most representative descriptions of the Buddhist cosmology appears in the Abhidhaemakosabhasya composed during the fifth century c.e. by Vasuvandhu, which states that at the foundation of the universe a vast ring of wind floats within empty space. The thickness of the ring is 1,600,000 yojana (one yojana is approximately seven miles) and its circumference is 1059 yojanas. Above the ring of wind there is a ring of water, and on the top of the water ring is a ring of metal. There is a layer of water, an ocean, above the metal ring. At the center of the ocean is a mountain named Sumeru. The height of the mountain is eighty thousand yojanas. Mount Sumeru is surrounded by nine mountain ranges and eight oceans, and the sun and moon circle around it. This is the world of the six realms of transmigration known as samsara.

The world of the six realms of transmigration consists of hell (naraka ), the realm of hungry ghosts (preta ), the realm of beasts (tiryand : the realm in which beasts kill each other), the realm of human beings (manusa : although humans are in the state of suffering, they have self awareness of their state of impermanence and ignorance and are capable of seeking the true living), the realm of titans (asura : deities of anger and fighting), and the realm of heavenly beings (devas ). These six realms are all the world of suffering.

Until modern Western scientific theories describing the shape of the Earth and the structure of the solar system were introduced into Buddhist nations like India, China, and Japan, the majority of Buddhists believed that this cosmology truly represented the structure of the universe. However, Buddhist cosmology was not created as a chart of the Earth discovered through geographic survey or astronomical observation. Rather, Buddhist cosmology was a vision created spiritually by Indian Buddhist monks, both Theravada and Mahayana, who contemplated upon the towering Himalayan mountains in the north of the subcontinent. The purpose of this cosmological vision is to reveal the reality of this world, which is filled with defilements and sufferings as living beings transmigrate through the six realms of existence.

Buddhists meditate upon the concept of transmigration of the six realms of existence in order to awaken to truths of impermanence and vanity and to achieve the state of enlightenment, which is beyond the realms of ignorance. Even today, this spiritual cosmology of Buddhism remains respected within Buddhist communities throughout Southeast and East Asia.

India. The Ayurveda, a traditional Indian book on medicine that was adopted by Buddhism, discusses surgery, pediatrics, toxicology, and divine pharmacology. It even includes a skeletal chart of the human body. The Buddha is often referred to in Buddhist documents as the "Great and Good Physician" and "Great Doctor King." The Buddha's teaching is regarded as a kind of medicine that relieves human suffering and brings spiritual liberation. In the Anguttara-nikaya, the Buddha declared, "Caring for the ill is no different from caring for me." One who cares for a dying person, through that act of caring, reciprocally learns about the impermanence and preciousness of life. From the time of early Buddhism, and through the history of the religion in China and Japan, there have continually been movements to provide care compassionately to the sick.

During the third century b.c.e., King Asoka of the Mauryan Empire, after reflecting on the cruelty and evil of war, converted to the teaching of the Buddha, which taught compassion and peace. Based on Buddhism's egalitarian view of the original nature of all human beings, the king protected all religious traditions equally. He built hospitals for humans and animals, grew medicinal herbs, planted trees on the streets, and dug wells and ponds for the well-being of the people.

In the beginning of the second century c.e., during the reign of King Kaniska of the Kusana Empire, the royal physician Caraka, an ethicist and a Buddhist, compiled a great book on medicine. According to the book Caraka-Samhita: The Collected Medical Treatments of Charaka, human beings must strive to seek three goals: to respect all lives, to obtain fulfilled lives, and to attain the happiness of enlightenment. In India, the practice of medicine was not an independent area of science, but was treated as an integrated part of Buddhism, philosophy, and ethics.

China and South East Asia. Numerous Mahayana and Theravada Buddhist scriptures dealing with the cure of general illnesses, eye maladies, and dental problems appear from about the late fourth century c.e., when advances in medicine and pharmacology were made. In Tibet, China, and South East Asia, the study of medicine and pharmacology was based on traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine. Additionally, in China Buddhists incorporated existing traditional medical practices including acupuncture, moxibustion (moxa-herb combustion treatment), and medicinal herbs to cure illnesses.

During the Tang dynasty, Chinese Buddhism reached its maturity in part through cultural exchanges with regions to the west. During the early eighth century, the monk Yixing (683727), famous as an astronomer and mathematician in the capital city Changan, created the Tayan calendar at the request of the emperor Xuanzong in 727. An accurate calendar was essential because it was believed that the movements of the stars and planets had a great influence on the prosperity of the empire. The Tayan calendar was based on the existing Chinese calendar system but enhanced its accuracy through the use of astronomical observations. It remained the basis for calendar making for many centuries thereafter. The Tayan calendar was introduced to Japan in the seventh century and was used as the official calendar for almost one hundred years between the eighth and ninth centuries.

Korea and Japan. Many Buddhist monks from the Korean peninsula traveled to India and China to seek the true Buddhism. Others went to Japan to propagate and establish the foundations of Buddhism in this neighboring country. These monks greatly contributed to the creation of Japanese culture. For example, Huici, a Korean monk from Koguryo, went to Japan in 595 c.e. and was appointed the tutor of Prince Shotoku. In 602, the monk Guanle from Pekche introduced the studies of astronomy, geography, calendar making, and mathematics. In 610, Tanzheng, a Korean monk from Koguryo introduced the Chinese technologies and arts of painting, paper making, and ink production. These technologies were also transmitted to nations to the west as Chinese and Korean monks traveled to propagate Buddhism.

In Japan, Prince Shotoku, who studied the Buddhism and politics of the Chinese Sui Dynasty, is credited with introducing new Chinese architectural technology and encouraging the arts of paper and ink making during the seventh century. He built Buddhist temples for the sake of world peace and social equality. In the eighth century the Empress Komyo, influenced by the compassionate spirit of the Tang Dynasty, built the Hiden-in, a "house of compassion" with social welfare facilities providing shelters for the poor, sick, and orphaned, and the Seyaku-in, a "house of medicine" with its own medicinal herb garden and pharmacy offering free care and medicine for the poor. The world's oldest printed materials were Buddhist scriptures found in Korea and Japan. These include Hyakumantou-darani, Buddhist scriptures enshrined in three-story wooden stupas, which were made to pay tribute to the war dead in 764.

In Japan, physician-monks appear as early as the seventh century. Although these monks bore the title zenji (meditation master), they were not advanced zazen practitioners but medical care givers for emperors and aristocrats. The work of physician-monks included the techniques of acupuncture and moxibustion, the creation of medicinal compounds, surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, ophthalmology, and obstetrics. They did not use the practices of esoteric Buddhism, such as mystical prayers and divination, for curing sickness.

From the seventh to twelfth centuries, monks from China, such as Ganjin, and Japanese monks who had studied in China, such as Saicho and Kukai, continued to introduce medical practices, including new medications and breathing exercises. Records indicate that monks in the Nara arealike Kiogan of Todaiji, Kikogan of Toshodaiji, and Hoshintan of Saidaijiproduced and marketed medicine to support the temple economy. During the thirteenth century, the Tendai School on Mount Hiei established a department of medicine within the monastic complex. From the sixteenth century, Jodo Shinshu temples in particular encouraged the production of medicine by popular medical practitioners and donated medicine for the sick.

During the 1920s, the work-oriented Morita therapy was developed within Japanese psychiatric medicine. Based on the teachings of Zen Buddhism, especially the concept of nonattachment, Morita therapy teaches that the more one tries to eliminate suffering, the more suffering becomes fixed in one's consciousness. Morita therapy involves giving up the attachment to suffering by living with suffering while doing physical work, nurturing the mind, and searching for a new and meaningful way to live. Morita therapy clearly contrasts with modern medical practices, which objectify illness as an enemy to be forcefully conquered.

In the 1980s the modern vihara movement in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan was created through the teamwork of specialists in Buddhism, medical care, and social welfare. The word vihara has several meanings: a temple (shoja ) or a monastery (soin ), peace of body and mind, a place for practicing asceticism, and a place for rest or a hospital. Learning from the spirit of hospice care developed by Christians, the vihara movement created a network of caregivers and facilities to provide humane and whole-hearted support for patients and their families. The aspiration of vihara is that patients and families are not left alone while they are under medical attention. The vihara movement, in accordance with the thought of the Japanese Buddhist cleric Shinran (11731262), does not aim to control people's minds to make them peaceful at the end of their lives. Nor does it judge people by the manner in which they die. The vihara movement accepts each person's death as a unique individual death. People shed tears in memory of the loved one after they are separated from them. The vihara movement is also important for the surviving family to learn from the memories of the deceased as guidance for their lives.

Historically, pharmacological research and the production of traditional medicines developed in areas in which the practice of Buddhism was strong. Buddhists did not believe that prayer cured sickness, nor did they give themselves up easily to illness as their unavoidable fate. Instead, Buddhists understood illness to result from causes and conditions, and they directly sought its eradication through the development of medications and treatments.

Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism, natural science, medicine, and pharmacology are incorporated within Buddhist practice. Tibetan medicine is highly holistic. It emphasizes the integrated mind and body and their harmony with the entire universe. Gyu-shi (four medical texts) written in the eighth century is one of the world's oldest documents on psychiatry.

At a Tibetan Buddhist hospital housed in a four-story modern building in downtown Lhasa, doctors who have also studied modern western medicine treat patients according to traditional Tibetan Buddhist medical practice. They consult charts of human anatomy showing the paths of respiratory tracts, arteries, and chi; charts of pressure points in the human body; and charts of plants and animals used for food. Buddhist doctors in Lhasa also use charts explaining how to diagnose illness by analyzing urine and blood, and they refer to tanka paintings of astronomical charts. This combination of charts represents the fundamental Tibetan Buddhist concept of the interrelatedness of the human body and the universe. This hospital is also attempting to compile a scientific analysis of the psychology of Buddhist enlightenment through modern psychology.

Buddhist encounters with modern Western science

When modern western science was first introduced to countries with large Buddhist populations, no major conflicts arose. Buddhists accepted western scientific technologies without much resistance. For example, in Japan during the nineteenth century, there emerged an idea of Japanese spirit and Western knowledge (wakon yosai ), which entailed the introduction of Western knowledge and technology with respect to traditional Japanese spirituality.

Asian society through the twentieth century has never experienced a drastic transformation of worldview to parallel the European scientific revolution or the Renaissance. One explanation for this is that Asian religions do not posit a singular god that governs over human beings. In the West, however, distinctions of self and others, human beings and nature, and human beings and God are clear. Galileo Galilei's (15641642) mathematical vision of the universe and René Descartes's (15961650) dualistic distinction of matter and spirit became the foundation for the eventual emergence of advanced scientific technologies such as electronics and genetic engineering. Observing a phenomenon objectively to discover the principles of the phenomenon is the starting point of modern science. For Buddhists, however, there exists no absolute being, and Buddhists need to nurture a sense of harmony and oneness with all things and beings. Humanity and nature are both precious existences, and the universe is composed of mutual supports for each existence. Therefore, modern scientific thinking, which analyzes nature and the universe as material, did not emerge.

Another reason that the modern scientific worldview was readily accepted in Buddhist nations is that Buddhism and science are both founded on the idea that everything in the universe has a cause. The Buddhist truth of interdependent co-arising is the concept that all phenomena are produced by the interrelatedness of things. Modern science also tries to clarify the cause of phenomena by the interrelatedness of matter. Because both Buddhism and science share this kind of rational thinking, Buddhists could easily accept modern science.

However, in Buddhism, understanding phenomena objectively by dividing self from others is considered to be an insufficient partial knowledge that will not bring a holistic understanding of the world. For example, there is a Buddhist analogy of "four visions of one water." For human beings, water is for drinking; for fish, water is a dwelling; for hungry ghosts (preta ), water looks like a pool of pus; and for heavenly beings (deva ), water is a beautiful jewel like lapis lazuli. This analogy demonstrates how all beings understand the water in different ways according to their own standpoints. For Buddhists, the existence of beings is not permanently static. Scientific knowledge discovered that a molecular of water consists of oxygen and hydrogen atoms. But this scientific view, while a type of knowledge, by no means captures the true quality of water. In the desert, water is as sweet as honey; for a person washed away by a flood, water is a threat. Buddhism teaches that there can be no understanding of the true quality of existence through attachment to a single viewpoint. Buddhism respects the unity of self and others by going beyond attachment to oneself and one's own perspective.

The Buddhist way of understanding phenomena is perhaps best described by the concept of the four wisdoms of the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. First, the wisdom of the perfect mirror is the wisdom of understanding all phenomena as they are, as if reflected in a clear mirror. Second, the wisdom of equality is the wisdom of understanding the fundamental nature shared by everything that exists. Third, the wisdom of wondrous observation is the wisdom of understanding all existences by their differences through the observation of the characteristics of each existence. Fourth, the wisdom of accomplishing what is to be done is the wisdom of qualitatively transforming the five human senses (touch, sound, sight, smell, taste) so as to act for the benefit and to perfect the existences of all living beings.

Buddhism and science in the twenty-first century

The relationship between science and Buddhism is not contradictory, for each can mutually understand the knowledge and wisdom of the other and bring benefits to humans and the Earth. But Buddhism teaches that people must avoid an extreme dependency on scientific technology because the application of technology has both beneficial and dangerous aspects. In this sense, Buddhists believe that it is necessary to bring a certain degree of regulation into the progress of science.

In order to nurture a productive relationship between Buddhism and science, three important attitudes should be maintained. First, there must be a transformation of viewpoint from self-centered interests to a universal vision. Second, people must respect the values of modern science, yet avoid reducing all existences to material or mathematical formulae. Third, people must stop simply discussing problems and start acting to protect living beings and the environment.

In 1989, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet discussed his idea of the relationship between Buddhism and science when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. The problems people face today, such as violent conflicts, destruction of nature, poverty, hunger, and so on, are human-created problems that can be resolved through human effort, understanding, and a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. The Dalai Lama stated that people need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet. Buddhists and the spiritual leaders of many other religions support the Dalai Lama's vision. Buddhists believe that people should not negate science simply by pointing out the harms created by modern science. Rather, scientists and religious leaders need to make more efforts to cooperate and depend on each other to bring happiness to Earth and humans.

See also Budhism; Chinese Religions and Science; Transmigration


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