Buddhism and Science

Buddhism and Science

by Dr. Alexander Berzin

Question: Could you speak more about the relationship between Buddhism and science, and give some specific examples of points that they share in common?

Dr. Berzin: The dialogues between Buddhist masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama and scientists have focused so far primarily on three areas. One is astrophysics, concerning primarily how the universe developed. Does it have a beginning? Was it created or is it part of an eternal process? Another topic is particle physics, regarding the structure of atoms and matter. The third is neurosciences, about how the brain works. These are the main areas.

One of the conclusions that both science and Buddhism reach in common is that there is no creator. In science, the theory of the conservation of matter and energy states that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Buddhists totally agree and extend the principle to mind as well. “Mind” in Buddhism means awareness of phenomena – either conscious or unconscious – and awareness of phenomena can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Thus, rebirth is simply a transformation in the ongoing continuity of an individual’s awareness of phenomena, but now with the physical basis of another body.

Particle physicists emphasize the role of the observer in defining anything. For example, from a certain point of view, light is matter; from another point of view, it is energy. What type of phenomenon light seems to exist as depends on many variables, particularly on the conceptual framework the investigator is using to analyze it. Thus, phenomena do not exist inherently as this or that from their own sides, unrelated to the consciousness that perceives them.

Buddhism asserts the same thing: what things exist as depends on the observer and the conceptual framework with which the person regards them. For example, whether a certain situation exists as a horrible problem or as something solvable depends on the observer, the person involved. If somebody has the conceptual framework, “This is an impossible situation and nothing can be done,” then there really is a difficult problem that cannot be solved. However, with the frame of mind that thinks, “This is complicated and complex, but there is a solution if we approach it in a different way,” then that person is much more open to try to find a solution. What is a huge problem for one person is not a big deal for another. It depends on the observer, for our problems do not inherently exist as monstrous problems. Thus, science and Buddhism come to the same conclusion: phenomena exist as this or that dependent on the observer.

Similarly, neurologists and Buddhists both note the dependently arising relationship of things. For example, when the neurologists examine the brain in an attempt to find what makes our decisions, they find that there is no separate “decision-maker” in the brain. No little person called “me” sits inside the head, receiving information from the eyes, ears and so on, as if on a computer screen, and makes decisions by pushing a button so that the arm does this and the leg does that. Rather, decisions are the results of complex interactions of an enormous network of nerve impulses and chemical and electrical processes. Together, they bring the result, a decision. This happens without there being a distinct entity that is a decision- maker. Buddhism emphasizes the same thing: there is no “me” which is permanent and solid sitting in our heads, which makes our decisions. Conventionally, we say, “I’m experiencing this. I’m doing that,” but actually, what occurs is the result of a very complex interaction of many different factors. Science and Buddhism are very close in this regard.

What is time? As students, we need to be on time for lectures and to have sufficient time to prepare for our studies or fulfill our responsibilities at work. How can we understand time in order to make life easier?

Buddhism defines time as “a measurement of change.” We can measure change in terms of the motion of the planets or the position of the sun in the sky. We can measure it in terms of how many lectures we go to in a semester – we have gone to twelve and two more are left – or we can measure it in terms of physical, bodily cycles – the menstrual cycle, the number of breaths we take, and so on. These are different ways of measuring change and time is simply a measurement of change.

Time does exist, but according to how we think of it, time affects us differently. For example, we think, “I only have one day left before the exam!” Because we are thinking of time in a small number, we get anxious because we do not have enough time. If we think of it in a different way, “There are twenty-four hours left,” then there seems to be ample time to do some preparation. Psychologically, it depends on how we look at it. If we view time as something solid and oppressive, we will be overwhelmed by it and will not have enough time. However, if we look at it openly, as how much time we have, we will try to use it constructively, instead of becoming upset.

Buddhism emphasizes logic and reasoning. Is there a certain point, as in other religions, at which a leap of faith is necessary?

Buddhism does not require that. We can see this from the Buddhist definition of what exists. What exists is defined as “that which can be known.” If it cannot be known, then it does not exist, for example, rabbit horns, turtle hair, or chicken lips. We can imagine human lips on a chicken; we can imagine a cartoon drawing of lips on a chicken; but we can never see chicken lips on a chicken because there is no such thing. It does not exist because it cannot be known.

This implies that everything that exists can be known. It is possible for our minds – namely, our mental activity of awareness of phenomena – to encompass everything. There are statements in the scriptures saying that the absolute is beyond the mind and beyond words. Firstly, I do not like to translate the term as “absolute” in English because it gives the connotation that it is beyond us, as if it were something up in the sky. Instead, I prefer to translate it as “the deepest fact about things.” The deepest fact about things does exist. It is beyond mind and beyond concepts and words in the sense that it is beyond our usual ways of perceiving things. Language and conception imply that things exist in black and white categories. Good person, bad person, idiot, genius – the implication of using language is that things actually exist in such well-defined, independent categories: “This is a dumb person. He cannot do anything correctly.” “This is a great person.” Perceiving reality is seeing that things do not exist in these fantasized, impossible ways, in black and white categories. Things are more open and dynamic. Someone may not be able to do something now, but that does not mean that he or she is exclusively an idiot. The person can be many other things – a friend, a parent, and so on.

Thus, when we say that the deepest fact about things is that they exist in a way that is beyond mind and beyond words, we are referring to the fact that things do not exist in the ways that concepts and language imply they do. Our minds are capable of encompassing that.

It is not that our minds cannot encompass certain things so we must make a leap of faith to believe in them. Buddhism never demands us to have blind faith. On the contrary, Buddha said, “Do not believe what I say just out of respect for me, but test it out yourself, as if you were buying gold.” That is true on all levels.

The logic of a particular point may not be immediately obvious to us. However, we do not reject something just because initially we do not understand it. By patiently learning and investigating, something that we previously did not understand can start to make sense.

Revised excerpt from Berzin, Alexander and Chodron, Thubten. “Glimpse of Reality.” Singapore: Amitabha Buddhist Centre, 1999.