Buddhism and Science

The accounts of how and why the world and human life within it is as it is were developed in religious/philosophical traditions such as Buddhism long before the development of modern scientific methods, so are often seen as incompatible with it or reinterpreted in the light of it. However, modern and contemporary Buddhists have argued that as it is not centred on God or belief in creation, and with its stress on experience and evidence, it has a great deal in common with science, and fewer issues than, for example, Christianity. Abhidharma/ Abhidhamma thought, where the world is broken up into constituent parts illustrating causality, is reminiscent of scientific method, and Mahayana thought is sometimes compared to theories in quantum physics. The Dalai Lama is very interested in science and technology and encouraging of scientific exploration, especially in connection with the effects of meditation on the brain. There has been a substantial amount of scientific research into the effects of Buddhist meditation, claiming that new scanning techniques can demonstrate changes in the brain, and mindfulness meditation, originating in Buddhism, has been used in practical ways to reduce anxiety and depression. However, the evaluations of such research are varied and require further investigation.

Theravada modernists in particular have tended to play down the mythological and ritual aspects of the tradition and point to the rationality and evidence-based nature of Buddhist thought. A favourite quotation from the Pali Canon for both Theravada modernists and Western Buddhists is in the Kalama Sutta where the Buddha tells his audience (who were wondering which of the many religious and non-religious teachers to believe) not to rely on hearsay, or traditional authorities and claimed revelation, or philosophical speculation and argument, or reflection on opinions, or because it fits your assumptions or out of respect for individual teachers (we might add now, or social media, or leading politicians…) but to try the teachings out in practice and see which lead to better lives and which just cause more harm and suffering. The Buddha claimed to have discovered the truth experientially through his own meditation. The fact that ‘ordinary’ followers do have to take his word for it at least at first can be compared to the way that most ordinary people have to place faith in scientists and scientific theories as we do not have the required knowledge and expertise to empirically check theories on quantum physics (or work out how similar the claims are to Mahayana philosophy) for example.

It has to be admitted that aspects of Buddhist worldviews such as karma, rebirth, other dimensions where gods, Buddhas and bodhisattvas dwell, or the existence of nirvana have not been verified by scientific experiment, even if Buddhists claim that they are verified in the experience of arhats, bodhisattvas and Buddhas. This is not to say that they are incompatible with science. On the one side, ‘science’ is not fixed and current views are the most convincing interpretations of the evidence currently available – but new data or better explanations of existing data may develop. On the other side, the historical Buddha taught that Buddhist teaching is also provisional, compared to a raft to get one across a river that is discarded when its job is done, so that Buddhist teachings do not have to be taken as the final word either. With Mahayana teachings such as ‘emptiness’ or ‘mind only’, the suggestion is that all such concepts as Buddha, rebirth, karma, are only true in a manner of speaking, leaving room for reconciliation with scientific findings.

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