Lucas Tang, biology
Written for REL-B433: Embodying Nirvana
Instructor: Prof. Richard Nance
Throughout history, religion and science have been commonly viewed as juxtaposing terms. Scholars and practitioners have struggled with attempting to unite these seemingly contrasting subjects over the past centuries; in this present era, with the advancements of science and technology, this discussion has reached new heights of pertinence. Firstly, why should one study or critically analyze both religion and science concurrently? 1) Because understanding the concepts and ideologies of other cultures aids in discussing matters diplomatically, and 2) simply because it is fairly difficult to combine the two. If someone endeavored to study or practice a religion with the most scientific merit, this analysis could be a good starting point in deciding which religion fit with his or her principles and beliefs. Donald S. Lopez notes in his book Buddhism and Science: A guide for the Perplexed that:
Recently a famous renunciant named Trailokajñāna living in Sri Lanka said that in the future the religion of the Buddha will be called the religion of science, that is, a religion of reason, and other religions will be called religions of faith. Another Buddhist pandita says, “Having mastered scientific reasoning, I came to believe in the Buddha. The religion of my teacher works hand in hand with scientific reasoning; when one side tires, the other is able to leap over [to assist]. If other religions join hands with science, they collapse, either immediately or after a few steps.” (Lopez 110)
How can one go about answering and testing the question of Buddhism being the religion of reason? A rather daunting task has been created, but this investigation will hopefully provide some insight on the question. Through examples characterizing the basic process of investigation, goals, and approach to teaching of both Buddhahood and the scientific process, I will attempt to argue that Buddhahood and the attainment of nirvana actually embody the perfected scientific process. However, I will also demonstrate that although Buddhahood embodies the perfected scientific process, is not fully described by it; there are limitations in the scientific process that Buddhahood transcends and utilizes to its advantage.
Basic Process of Investigation
At a basal level, the scientific method uses categorized steps in order to elucidate a theory or conclusion. In nearly every introductory science textbook, the scientific process is described as having six key phases: “State the Problem, Gather Information, Form a Hypothesis, Test the Hypothesis (Experiment), Analyze the Data, Report the Results/Conclusion” (Miller Ch. 1). It is with these simple steps that all of humankind’s respected scientists and scholars have attempted understanding the world around us. These steps do not necessarily need to be performed in the given order; however, it is imperative that the experiment includes all steps. For example, a scientist may pose the question, “What is the shape of DNA in the cell?” This simple question leads to extensive background research on prior knowledge of DNA, theories of its functions, or its chemical makeup. A hypothesis could be made: “DNA is circular,” and then tested with multiple techniques such as X-ray crystallography or scanning electron microscopy (Cold Spring 2015). The data from the experiments are analyzed to the best of the scientists’ abilities and a result is presented: “Our data suggests DNA actually has the shape of a double helix.”
Buddhahood possesses the same process of answering questions. This can be seen in the Four Noble Truths explained by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful … And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming … And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving … And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” (Bhikkhu 1993).
Relating each Truth to a step of the scientific process can elucidate parallels between the two ideas. The first truth of stress (or suffering) demonstrates the Buddha gathering information; that is, the Buddha makes an observation about the world: that it is full of suffering. The Buddha then poses the hypothesis that causes this suffering in the second noble truth: craving. The third noble truth is another hypothesis posited by Buddha for how to end suffering: simply by ending craving. Over his lifetime, the Buddha tested his hypotheses repeatedly by experiencing both extremes of pleasure and asceticism. In the beginning of his life, the Buddha lived a life of luxury and indulgence as the son of a king (Boeree). The Buddha first started off by experiencing the pinnacle of sense pleasure and comfort; he quickly discovered that this way of living was not how one should live their life. In this case, the Buddha performs an experiment to test the hypothesis that sense pleasures are the ultimate goal in life. Later on in his lifetime, the Buddha tries asceticism to fulfill his life (Boeree); again he is testing a hypothesis with his life as an experiment, and again he concludes that this life was not correct. The Buddha communicates the Fourth Noble Truths and other teachings as his analysis and results of his “experiment” to achieve nirvana. By offering this conclusion, Buddha demonstrates that his idea of how to attain nirvana has been sufficiently tested and achieved through his lifetime. As observed in the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha has successfully used and perfected the scientific process by investigating claims through experiments to attain nirvana and achieve Buddhahood.
Another instance of where the scientific process is related to the attainment of Buddhahood appears in the form of testing new ideas or theories. When a new scientific theory is claimed, it is examined within lens of existing theories and laws. For example, if a scientist posed a new theory regarding how gravity works, this new theory and its evidence would be placed up against all previous work and current knowledge regarding gravity. For a theory to become accepted by the majority of the scientific community, it must be rigorously tested, ensuring the best possible theory reigns supreme at the current time (Berkeley 2015). Likewise, new interpretations, traditions, or ideologies regarding Buddhahood and the attainment of nirvana are largely tested against the old and classic interpretations of the past. In many traditions, the “old” is esteemed as being the best resource for attaining nirvana, whereas anything “new” is treated with skepticism or in critical manner (Nance 9/15). This parsing of ideas and traditions into the dichotomy that the old is that which is good and trustworthy and the new is that which is bad and untrustworthy is emulated perfectly within the scientific community. When a new theory is encountered, the majority of the community does not accept it easily. Rather, a novel theory must be met with exhaustive tests against earlier ideas to truly be accepted as the best possible idea. Thus, we can see how new ideas about Buddhahood are questioned in the same vein as new scientific theories.
In addition to holding up against time-tested theories and laws, one of the most important pillars in the scientific process is that experiments are repeatable. When a scientific experiment cannot be repeated to produce the same or similar supporting results, the experiment is usually viewed as poor science (Nosek). For example, if a scientist claims to have created a new chemical element, it is necessary that the experiments leading to the creation of this element are reproducible by others; otherwise the claim may be simply tossed out by the scientific community as a fluke or even as a blatant lie. The idea of Buddhahood reproducibility is portrayed in Buddhism by the arhats. An arhat is “a perfected person, one who has gained insight into the true nature of existence and has achieved nirvana” (Encyclopedia Britannica). These individuals are equated to Buddha in terms of reaching nirvana; however the factor that separates them from an actual Buddha is debated among traditions. One take on the difference is that arhats can have lapses of the mind: “For arhats, by contrast, there is the possibility of performing some inappropriate or neutral act as a result of momentary forgetfulness; but such things do not occur at all for a [Buddha] (Griffiths 107). However, the point of interest here in arhats is that they offer a proof for Buddhahood. Although they are not exactly like the Buddha, arhats are the closest approximation to an actual Buddha according to most traditions. Analogous to the reproducibility required in the scientific process, we have a form of Buddhahood that has been repeated in order to support and prove the process attaining nirvana taught by the Buddha. Additionally, Buddhahood has perfected this reproducibility by revealing that many beings have achieved nirvana multitudes of times throughout history and different universes. It is this fact of seemingly unlimited Buddhas that conveys the idea of Buddhahood perfecting reproducibility, since it has gone above and beyond what is normally accepted in the scientific process as being reproducible.
While the structure of the scientific process has been identified to be within Buddhism and the attainment of Buddhahood, the goals of both the scientific process and the path to nirvana are comparable as well. The first and foremost purpose of science is to discover and understand how the world works. Science aims to produce accurate explanations of the mechanisms of natural world, what the components are, and how the world arrived at its current state (Berkeley 2015). Essentially, the scientific process’ end goal is truth. By sifting through the evidence, creating and performing experiments, and repeating them to test their viability, scientists have used the scientific process to try and understand the world with the utmost veracity. Similarly, the reason for pursuing Buddhahood is the search for truth as well. As described in the Mahiiyiinasutriilarhkiira: “1-2. Through countless hundreds of ordeals and countless gatherings of virtue, destroying countless obscurations over immeasurable periods of time, omniscience is attained: unspoiled by any obscuration, it is celebrated as Buddhahood” (Jamspal 73), Specifically, Buddhahood is the acquirement of the actual truth in world – how the world actually is. There is no true attainment of the Buddhahood without perfect understanding of the world we live in. A penultimate goal of describing processes as they appear to be to the fallible human eye is a common stepping-stone to understanding Buddhahood and the natural processes of the world, even when more complicated and truthful mechanisms are truly at play. As previously noted, there are beings such as arhats who have come close to perfect knowledge of truth; yet, this is not the final goal. When using the scientific method, researchers and scholars would not want to stop at “partially describing” a phenomenon and then ceasing to pursue the actual explanation. Thus, both the scientific process and the pursuit of Buddhahood aspire to the same final goal: understanding how things in the world actually are. Buddhahood however transcends the scientific process in the fact that it perfects this goal of ultimate truth by actually claiming to have achieved it.
When the ultimate goal of both the acquirement of Buddhahood and the scientific processes is presented to be truth/perfected knowledge, some may confuse this case of omniscience with omnipotence. It is crucial in separating these terms, especially in the realm of religion. Omniscience is the possession of unlimited knowledge, whereas omnipotence is the possession of unlimited power (the ability to do anything). Buddhahood (in some schools of thought) and the scientific process share the same property of only claiming/pursuing ultimate knowledge, not the ability of unlimited power (Nance 11/3 and Griffiths 69). There is no mention in Buddhism of an omnipotent being creating the world we live in (characterized in the Buddhist tradition as samsara) either: In the Pali imaginaire, there are “no cosmogonic stories, and there are no supernatural beings outside space and time to bestride the stage of its everyday-polytheism-organizing enunciation of order (Collins 19). Some Buddhist traditions claim the true interpretation of how someone who has reached Buddhahood actually is by becoming a maximally great being. In terms of a maximally great human being, this can be interpreted as one who is the ultimate version of humans (i.e. possessing all the knowledge possible in the world). When comparing this idea of omniscience to the goal of the scientific process, an equivalent pattern is observed. The scientific process never pursues or claims the ability of omnipotence, and thus cannot evaluate the idea either: “If there is an omnipotent force in the universe, it would by definition be impossible to hold constant to control its effects. A scientist could control for the effects of temperature, light … but it would be impossible to control the actions of [an omnipotent] God” (Sandford 16). Possession of knowledge does not assume for anything to be simultaneously achievable in the realm of possibility. The path to Buddhahood and the scientific process are therefore in accord by only striving for omniscience and not omnipotence, although Buddhahood has seemingly perfected omniscience.
As a result of the goals of the attainment of Buddhahood and scientific process being comparable, we may now turn our attention to the products of the goal of ultimate truth, specifically the states of these products. The scientific process has produced a plethora of knowledge about how the world works for humankind, including knowledge of electricity, aerodynamics, or even nuclear physics. Consequently, many products and inventions have been created such as the light bulb, airplanes, and the atomic bomb that were birthed from the knowledge produced by the scientific method. What is important to note is that the scientific process does not dictate the purpose this knowledge will serve. Knowledge is simply a neutral product that does not declare whether or not it could be used for good (assisting mankind) or evil (hindering mankind): “Classically, sciences main goal has been to build knowledge and understanding, regardless of its potential applications” (Berkeley 2015). As a famous historical anecdote, one can consider the case of atomic bomb. The knowledge alone of nuclear physics was a huge achievement in understanding the atomic level of physical matter; however, it was used to destroy human life in WWII. The products of the attainment of Buddhahood, awakened Buddhas, likewise want to steer away from the claim that something may be “good or bad”. Binaries are not taken as the ultimate truth in Buddhism, as they are merely concepts used by humans in order to categorize objects or ideas. A Buddha would not want to categorize something as “good” or “bad” as this is bound to samsara (Nance Handout 9/24). For the Mahayana tradition, the ultimate truth is that there actually is no difference between the relative world and ultimate reality: “non-duality points to the idea that the universe and all its multiplicity are ultimately expressions or appearances of one essential reality” (Espin 2007).
By concluding that what really is the world is all the same reality, the need for categorization or need to group objects in terms of binaries such as good/bad or positive/negative is eliminated. By comparing the states of the products of the scientific process and Buddhahood, the connection of non-application arises. Resulting from the scientific process, knowledge is acquired and is left with no proclivities. In Buddhahood, the product is the ultimate truth, which is absent of the need to categorize that truth as good/bad or possess a category in any binary system. Furthermore, some schools of Buddhism explain that the truth is not categorized or labeled, but also that the truth cannot be categorized at all. Truth and knowledge are simply as they are presented, without any predisposition to being categorized; it is in this fashion that Buddhahood embodies the perfection of the scientific process’ non-proclivity.
Approach to Teaching
Buddhahood not only can be achieved by following a perfected scientific method, but also is explained to practitioners just as the products of scientific process may be explained to a student. Although the true final goal of both the Buddhahood and scientific process systems is ultimate truth, it is usually very difficult for someone new to the subject to immediately understand what is being presented. Therefore, the best method advocated by both systems is the approach of slowly easing into material. In science, many concepts are explained gradually over the course of a student’s progression from early childhood all the way up to the university level. Take classical physics for example. It is normally taught in most secondary schools around the country that the physical world is governed by sets of properties that can be written out and explained in fairly straightforward terms such as Newton’s second law of motion: F=ma. This widely recognized equation simply states that objects with a certain mass can have forces applied to them, and in turn, their accelerations change accordingly. Unfortunately, as a student progresses throughout his or her physics curriculum, the student will encounter quantum theory. This theory analyzes how the world works at the quantum level (atomic level and below). In contrast to classical mechanics, the equations in this field of physics are often filled with uncertainties and rather complex ideas such as quantum entanglement (a theory where two atoms that are separated physically somehow interact with each other when it appears as though it would be impossible for them to do so) or wave-duality (a theory in which particles and waves are the same) (Ames 287). It is important to note that these theories are not simply our “best approximations” at this point in time; they have been rigorously tested at the highest precision/theoretical level and have been supported by Einstein’s and Schrodinger’s work.
Akin to the idea of “easing into the way things really operate” is the Buddhist notion of skillful means. Buddhahood is explained in the tradition by using incremental steps on the path to fully understanding what it really means when attaining nirvana. For example, there is a parable regarding the Great Buddha Vehicle, a method of attaining nirvana. In the parable, a house containing a father with three young sons catches fire (Lotus Sutra 2015). The father immediately leaves the house, but he cannot convince his sons, who are occupied with toys, to leave the burning home. He figures out a plan to lure them out: he offers them their respective favorite toy carts (in the form of a great rare oxcart, a deer cart, and a sheep cart). The sons are convinced by this offering and head outside to meet their father who presents them all with the great and rare oxcart. In this story, the oxcart represents the Great Buddha Vehicle; the point conveyed is that even though the father lied to the sons about which carts they would be receiving, they all ended up receiving the best cart instead. The Buddhist tradition classifies this action as “skillful means”. It is deliberately subverting the truth in order to guide practitioners on the correct path leading to the true actualization of Buddhahood.
There are two similarities present that must be addressed: 1) that Buddhahood and the scientific process allow for an easing into the real truth through “small approximations/lies” and 2) that Buddhahood and the scientific process utilize skillful means to create a distinction between conventional and ultimate truth. In the first case, this claim is fairly easy comprehend. Each system utilizes approximations to promote the procession of people’s understanding in their respective subject (whether to understand how physics works or to understand the true path to attaining Buddhahood). Skillful means in Buddhism can be approximated to the high school teacher who only teaches classical physics and does not mention quantum theory. In the second comparison, leading figures and authorities in both Buddhahood and scientific processes apply skillful means to draw a line between conventional truth and ultimate truth. In William L. Ames Emptiness and Quantum Theory, Ames describes this connection:
“For example, in daily life we may say. ‘There is a book on the table.’ For both Buddhism and physics this statement is only conventionally true. In classical physics the book and the table are fundamentally a collection of atoms interacting by means of forces. For Abhidarma [Buddhist teachings] the book and the table are made up of dharmas that influence each other according to various causes and conditions.” (Ames 292)
The point of significance to note is that the attainment of Buddhahood and the results of the scientific process both choose to explain their ultimate truths by clearly separating a conventional truth from an ultimate truth. However, it is this proclamation of ultimate truths in Buddhahood, whether it is in the form of Dharmas for Abhidarma thinkers, or in the form of the mind being what really is, as in the Yogacaran tradition (Nance 12/1 and Makransky), that separates and elevates the Buddhahood above the scientific process (which has not declared a perfect ultimate truth yet in the fact that quantum theory is not 100% certain, and more theories will likely be uncovered in the future). In this way, Buddhahood encompasses the perfected form of scientific process, as it can and does proclaim its ultimate truth.
Ancillaries of Buddhahood; Limitations of Scientific Process
As presented in the sections above, Buddhahood is not only similar to the scientific process in terms of process of investigation, goals pursued, and the approach to teaching, but Buddhahood embodies a perfected version of the scientific process as well. The main distinction observed is that Buddhahood has in fact acquired perfect truth whereas the scientific method still is pursuing it. We may now turn to addressing the question of what else Buddhahood may possess/offer, in relation to some of the limitations of the scientific process.
As previously mentioned, the attainment of Buddhahood allows the awakened one to understand the true reality of the world without the need for concepts. Although it is debated as to what “thinking without concepts entails”, we can understand what this could mean through an approximating example. As explained by Griffiths in Chapter 6 of On Being Buddha, a Buddha does not use categories as we, the imperfect human beings, must use. The example he employs is the instance of a blue-pot placed in front of us. We, as beings with the incorrect form of awareness, would see just a blue pot as it is. Conversely, Buddha does not and cannot be aware of the blue pot in the way we would see a blue pot. Buddha sees the blue pot as it truly is, without essence (not categorizing it). In the scientific process, this idea of thinking without concepts is impossible. To effectively carry out an experiment or test a hypothesis, one needs prior knowledge in the form of concepts to even begin answering these questions. Imagine a world in which physics equations cannot be written, passed down, or thought of in any conceptual form; no one would be able to understand it. The idea of a world without concepts is something Buddhahood offers that the scientific process cannot even start to tackle.
Even if we do allow the scientific process to use concepts or symbols, Buddhahood still retains the advantage of actually claiming to know the sought after ultimate truth and providing it as a means of salvation. The scientific process may eventually lead humankind to knowing all there is to know about the world we live, but Buddhahood claims to know now in the present. By simply practicing the Eight Fold Path, anyone is able to eventually end suffering and reach nirvana. In the Yogacaran tradition for example, the ultimate truth is that mind is all there really is: “in the mentally cognized, only the mentally cognized… we perceive reality for the first time as it actually is, consisting only of the mind and its appearance, arising non-dually from moment to moment,” (Wallace 139). If this take on the ultimate truth does not suit you, there are more traditions such as Abhidarma or Prajnaparamita that offer other explanations; nevertheless, what is crucial here is that an ultimate truth is described and given. The scientific process in its current state has not been able to accurately describe dark matter or dark energy, among many other phenomena theorized today, and it does not claim to know how to explain everything as well. Thus, it is by claiming an ultimate truth and effectively offering soteriological guidance that Buddhahood not only embodies the scientific process’ end goal, but also provides ancillary substance.
Finally, the attainment of Buddhahood requires something the scientific process does not: compassion. Compassion plays a large role in the attainment of Buddhahood, as it is commonly noted how compassionate the Buddha is: “Buddha possesses great compassion for all living beings, compassion that governs all Buddha’s actions for their benefit. This compassion is omnipresent and prevenient” (Griffiths 69). It is imperative for a Buddha to have compassion for others as it allows him to care for others being and salvation; a selfish Buddha would leave samsara and would not be able to help anyone else attain nirvana. The emphasis of a Buddha with peace and compassion for all living beings in all realms of samsara is at the forefront of many Buddhist traditions today. Furthermore, compassion is not solely something bestowed upon those who have attained Buddhahood, practicing compassion also has its merits along the path to nirvana as demonstrated by the Dalai Lama: “True compassion is universal in scope… As a Buddhist monk, the cultivation of compassion is an important part of my daily practice (Maharotra 11). A romantic view of science may posit that the reason for creating the scientific process is for the betterment of humanity and helping out your fellow man. When viewing the scientific process at a basic level however, there is no mention of any sort of compassion necessary for the elucidation of knowledge concerning the world. Consequently, Buddhahood again embodies the perfected qualities of the scientific process, but also adds to them by containing compassion.
By juxtaposing the key components of both Buddhahood and the scientific process, it was shown that Buddhahood has perfected the scientific method insofar as it has utilized its basic process of investigation, pursuit of goals, and approach to teaching to actually achieve the final goal of ultimate truth. In addition, Buddhahood not only embodies the perfected the scientific process, but also provides ancillary qualities to those on the path to the attainment of nirvana, namely a way to think without concepts, soteriological answers, and a necessity for compassion. Results of scientific processes have been compared to Buddhist claims noted throughout history, and with the exponential increase in technology and knowledge over the past century, surely more comparisons will be postulated. When discussing the relationship between religion and science, it is especially essential in this day and age to delve into all of the information available. By making connections from an academic viewpoint, a less biased and more widely palatable response is created. It is due to these reasons why this investigation was performed: to try to better understand the roles science and religion play in our lives. Will there ever be a perfect union between Buddhism and the scientific process? Only time will tell.