Does Buddhism need science? That is to say, does Buddhism need the validation of science? Perhaps not, however, in order to lift the essence of Buddhism out of the cultural setting from which we as practitioners have learnt this science of the mind we call Buddhism, we need to test the claims presented. In this article, I want to explore the possibility that science and Buddhism need each other.
Most would agree I think when I say that calling Buddhism a religion is really a misnomer. For the Buddha himself urged his students not to believe what he taught merely out of respect. Like a philosopher he asked his students to test his claims as a gold smith would test the quality of gold before making a purchase. To put his claims to the blowtorch of empirical inquiry—direct experience. These were not clever tricks employed by a charismatic religious leader. He really did mean it. And it is, therefore, our responsibility as followers of this great philosopher, to do just that: think and investigate these claims for ourselves. It is not as if we have to reinvent the dharma-wheel, however we need to experience it for ourselves. After all, if something is worth believing in—the Four Noble Truths for instance—is it not worthy of critical, objective (in the sense of being free of bias) and rigorous investigation? So, let me ask you the question again: does Buddhism need science?
2. Asking Questions
To me the answer is an unequivocal, yes. For if Buddhism is to make a lasting contribution it must engage the predominate paradigm of its time. This is science. No question; no doubt. Science pervades the minds of ordinary people, so much so that marketers now use the term “scientific fact” to sell their products. Science is the religion of the non-religious. Yet, has anyone seen these magical products marketed under the guise of scientism, solve the problems of the world—stress, anxiety or loneliness? In a recent study, for instance, it was shown that the average age of patients being treated for clinical depression for the first time has dropped to the age of 15. The modern world needs something over and above the current pills it is being administered.
Buddhism as it spread from India engaged each new culture at the highest level of discourse. As it comes to the West, it must engage this culture fully—which of course includes the scientific tradition—if it is to find acceptance. For its part, science could play a role in helping the contemplatives to weed out untenable claims and ineffective practices (Wallace, p.146).
Some Buddhists may think: if science were to test the efficacy of Buddhist practice, there is the chance that the teaching of this ancient and refined tradition may be sullied. I say to those people: you are correct. This in fact is possible. However, most scientists—being well read people—already have some understanding of the Buddhadharma. Often their understanding is based on misinformation or even just plain wrong information, and it is for this very reason that it is vitally important that those trained in Buddhist theory and practice engage scientists and do so fully. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called such people hybrids. These hybrids are people trained in traditional Buddhist theory and practice, and moreover, have gained—to some extent—rigorous training in one or more of the following Western disciplines: science, philosophy or psychology.
While I cannot speak for His Holiness, I can imagine the reason why it is important for these people to be trained in both traditions. It is because the knowledge garnered from meditation is direct, immediate, perceptual and therefore only accessible via first-person inquiry. This knowledge must then be translated into information readily accessible to science. If it is not, it will remain the domain of those trained in the Buddhist tradition, period. For that reason, we need to learn their language, their theories, and their paradigms in order to accurately articulate the phenomenology of meditation. What’s more as Alan Wallace points out:
Tibetan Buddhism’s own Dalai Lama has stated firmly that if science can prove any Buddhist theory to be false, then that belief should be dropped (Wallace, p.147).
His Holiness is not joking. If science was to prove beyond at doubt that a particular doctrine is false, then we must drop that tenet. I, therefore, fully support this call to action. But it does beg the question: false for whom? If science is working off the wrong page, then this ancient and refined tradition could potentially be refuted without proper investigation. Being refuted is one thing; being refuted by simply believing Buddhist theory of mind and its methodologies of first-person inquiry must be wrong by virtue that it is not the same as current science, then setting out to prove just this, strikes me as rather unscientific. However, I did not become a monk simply to belong to a creed. I can say with certainty that in my case at least it was a search for truth—wherever that led. And it is this same spirit of inquiry, which drives science. In that regard in 1963 the physicists Richard Feynman lecturing on the scientific method had the following to say:
Experimenters search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong. In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.
Anyone who has studied and meditated on the deconstructionist methodologies of such Madhyamaka philosophers as Nāgārjuna, Śāntideva or Candrakīrti, will see striking similarities here. Because our dispositional narratives—the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves—are such that we naturally reify our own existence, we in fact believe our on theories. Through this reification, the bifurcation of subject and object, us and them, ensues. The effect of which is the First Noble Truth—suffering. By applying the Madhyamaka dialectic, the explication of this root cause of dysfunctional states of mind—mental afflictions—can be stripped from our way of engaging the world. We, therefore, must “search most diligently, and with the greatest effort, in exactly those places where it seems most likely that we can prove our theories wrong”. Simply believing there is no inherently existent self will get you nowhere. It is only through critical analysis, which strips away our naive conceptions of ourselves, our tradition, our way of doing things that we can continue to move forward in our project of understanding the human condition.
Science, on the other hand, is a growing body of knowledge with practical applications. Applications such as quantum bits are so advanced that those working in these fields are the only people able to understand them. Yet, it seems to me that the real discovery of this scientific paradigm remains concealed to the very people who discovered them:
The most revealing characteristic of quantum physics is the role of the observer in measurement: it is the act of observation, intimately wrapped up in the point of view of the scientist—his or her beliefs—that determine outcomes such as wave or particle and other physical states. It seems that at the subatomic level, the level that supposedly underlies all physical reality, the mind acts as a potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality as we know it. Subatomic particles, the instruments that detect them, laws concerning their existence and expression, mathematics, and the mind all exist in dependence upon one another (Wallace, p.115).
Scientists, I believe, are yet to fully appreciate the possibilities their discoveries yield. Because mind is inextricably linked to the “role of the observer” and is a “potent, cooperative force in the creation of reality”, perhaps the question should be rephrased to: does science need Buddhism?
3. Does Buddhism Need Science?
Although physicists understand the observer plays a role in measurement, still they believe in an underlying reality beyond the mind—for them, there is still something out there. The quantum world—even for these scientists—is fuzzy, difficult to understand and has little direct relevance to the world of people, yet it is still really real. The most important discovery of the quantum world—to use Buddhist parlance—all phenomena are merely dependently arisen, existing in dependence on causes and conditions, parts and an imputing consciousness. This shows that the mind is inextricably linked to the creation of our world. Still, this fact remains somewhat in the domain of those working in the field of quantum physics. While these discoveries have provided the modern world with many benefits—I am writing on one such benefit—science has yet to find a way to integrate these discoveries into our own lives. Science has made the modern world an easier place to live; yet life has not become easier. Clearly, there is something lacking to modernity. Something beyond what is currently known to science.
This, I believe, is where contemplative traditions such as Buddhism can lend a guiding hand. By participating in research projects investigating such phenomena as consciousness, contemplatives can provide information that science does not have access to—albeit from a first-person point of view. That is, contemplatives can provide science with qualitative descriptions of various states of consciousness. Not just what is it like to experience non-referential compassion, but perhaps even non-dual awareness, and the cognition of phenomena as merely dependent-arising. Thus providing science with a motherly push in the right direction and perhaps even providing science with methods for integrating often, abstruse scientific findings, back into the lives of ordinary people.
We need a better understanding of the mind. That goes for those of us who follow a spiritual tradition as well as those with no such interest…[for] a mind made clear by self-knowledge will be better able to understand the message than one immersed in confusion (Wallace, p.164).
Such research has in fact already begun. In the 1960’s doctors from Harvard studied the effects of meditation on metabolism—showing that meditation may decrease the consumption of oxygen by up to 18%. In the 1970’s Jon Kabat-Zinn who has a Ph.D in molecular biology studied the effects of meditation on stress—as a result creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. In the 1970’s and 80’s Professor Herbert Benson—again from Harvard—studied tummo meditation—one tummo practitioner studied was able to reduce his oxygen consumption by up to 64%. Studies of the effects of meditation are not new. What is new is the concept of the hybrid. Someone educated in Buddhist theory and practice directly involved in the research project. Being trained in both traditions these hybrids can act as interpreters. By drawing knowledge of phenomenal structures of consciousness directly from their own mind, they can articulate this directly to scientists, and in their own language. Thus giving science—for the first time—ongoing access to new data and from here—new discoveries.
One such discovery is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the brain to restructure itself from experience. Previously it was believed that neuron connections were fixed in adult humans, degenerating over time. Now we know through study of meditation that the brain can in fact continue to grow even in later life. It is through mind training that enables these neuronal features to reconnect—all this from collaborative projects between meditators and scientists.
Because research has shown we are capable of changing and improving our cognitive capacities. We can, over time, change the way we relate to ourselves in order to reflect something closer to reality—thus becoming healthier people as a result. This ability to change is something that has been recognized by Buddhists for over two millennium—even if it was not under the label neuroplasticity. Yet it is science, which can help us deliver this message to the general community. Not to convert; simply to help. Perhaps then we can begin to recede the trend of 15 year olds being treated for clinical depression.
For these reasons collaborative projects such as the Shamatha Project are vitally important. It is also why I have begun, in affiliation with the Santa Barbra Institute for Consciousness Studies, a project to establish a similar institute in Australia. The aim of the Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies is to:
- Establish collaborative research projects between scientists, psychologists, philosophers and contemplatives in order to investigate the nature of consciousness.
- Establish facilities for people from around the world to learn meditation and engage in short and long term retreats.
- Establish educational programs, which facilitate integration of the findings from the studies conducted by our research teams.
That is to say, the aim of the institute will be to serve others by way of arranging collaborative research projects, where contemplatives and scientists work together, in a combined effort to understand that which is the producer of human flourishing—the mind. As well as develop contemplative observatories for budding hybrids, allowing these people to refine their meditative skills in conducive and supportive environments. And most importantly to create educational programs whereby techniques for integration of this new information are developed.
Thus, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era of human flourishing. As knowledge of the human condition is, for the first time, studied from the first, second and third person perspectives. This is something, which science and the world’s great contemplative traditions can only benefit. It is my hope, therefore, that institutions such as Australian Institute for Consciousness Studies and the Santa Barbra Institute will become templates for our future, a place for all people to learn to meditation and be well. I leave you to ponder this wonderful quote from one of the world’s great thinkers—Albert Einstein.
A human being is part of a whole, called by us the Universe, a part limited by space and time. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty (Albert Einstein, 1921).
Wallace, A.B. & Hodel, B., 2008. Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, Shambhala.