The Buddha was Scientific
the Buddha taught was not based upon divine revelation or some other
source of superior authority. All his teachings derived directly from
his own personal experience that arose from his compassionate efforts to
relieve the sufferings of beings. During the years of his meditation
and reflection, he directly observed his own mind with the precision and
objective exactness that we have now come to associate with scientific
research. He witnessed and described the origin and functions of his own
consciousness, and explained in detail how he transcended it to
discover what lies beyond its limitations. The state he experienced is
of course indescribable because it is beyond concept, but the Buddha
nevertheless did his best to guide beings towards it. In doing this he
constantly stressed that his teachings were not to be taken as words of
authority to be propagated as beliefs; they were offered as practical
guidelines to be studied, tested and applied, on the basis that what
worked for him could work for all of us.
we look for example at the Kalama Sutta, we find an instance of the
Buddha’s insistence on scientific investigation, rather than a reliance
on faith, authority or speculation:
Do not believe just because wise men say so. Do not believe just
because it has always been that way. Do not believe just because others
may believe so. Examine and experience yourself.
could say that the Buddha was a pragmatic scientist who developed a
compassionate science of the mind, based not upon measurements of
external phenomena or mathematical equations, but upon direct
observation of his own experience. In view of this it is not surprising
that Albert Einstein commented:
“If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”
is becoming increasingly clear that Buddhist and scientists have much
in common – particularly their search for the truth of how things really
are1. What is interesting is that they approach this
question from opposite perspectives. Buddhists, we could say, do it from
the inside moving out, because they begin with direct observation of
the mind and its workings, and then describe what this reveals about the
reality of the external world we seem to see and experience in common.
Scientists on the other hand begin with this “obvious” world and subject
it to scrutiny by various means. Within the last century, scientific
methods of investigation have started on the “outside” and move inwards
to the realms of the mind, consciousness and the structure of what we
call reality – that is, the world we see that seems so solid and stable
but turns out upon analysis to be nothing of the sort. So science has
moved progressively closer to Buddhism, rather than away from it, and in
doing so has presented the world with similar insights to those of the
Buddha, but in different language.
There are two areas in particular which are of interest:
the nature of the physical reality we perceive, and second, the
functioning of consciousness in relation to the brain, and the potential
for positive transformation.
1 One translation of the term “Buddha Dharma” is “the way things are according to the Buddha”.
The Nature of Physical Reality
Are things what they seem?
Buddha discovered that things are not always the way they seem to be.
The universe, he said, is a projection of the mind – at the collective
and individual level. At first glance this statement does not make sense
because what we see and experience seems to contradict it. But a
parallel from scientific discovery might help us to take a first step
towards understanding what the Buddha meant.
matter, we are told, regardless of how solid and substantial it looks,
is actually more than 99% space. It is made up of molecules that exist
in relation to one another, but do not even touch. In fact they are
about as widely spaced as the suns and planets of our Milky Way. If this
is the case, how is it that things look so solid and dense?
answer seems too be that the aspect of our consciousness mediated by
the left hemisphere of the brain causes us to perceive what is there as
solid and clearly defined, even though that is not so. If the left
hemisphere stops functioning – for example in the event of a massive
stroke – our perception of the world around us changes radically because
we experience only that aspect of consciousness mediated by the right
hemisphere. This was described by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who had such a
was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical
boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition
of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer
perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything; instead, I
now blended in with the space and flow around me….. (p42)
boundaries of my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the
universe….my perception was released from its attachment to
categorization and detail (p49)…my brain could no longer distinguish
writing as writing, instead, the card looked like an abstract tapestry
of pixels. (p.57)
suggests that at one level we have the potential to perceive things as
not solid, separate entities, but as a fluid blending together of
matter. Right hemisphere consciousness sees and experiences things more
in accordance with the reality described by scientists. This level of
perception seems to be relatively passive, because there is no sense of
controlling, directing or intervening. Nor is there any sense there
being a “me” present to do anything. However, it seems that the left
hemisphere consciousness overshadows this and projects a more solid,
definite and personalised vision of what there is. In doing so it also
projects a strong sense of “me” being present to have the experience, be
important and so on.
Quite clearly, therefore, our experience of what we call reality
is not determined by external objective factors. It is a product of
perception. This was amusingly demonstrated by a stage hypnotist who
hypnotised a group of volunteers and gave each one bar of soap telling
them they were holding delicious apples. They proceeded to eat their
“apples” with great enjoyment, even commenting on how sweet and juicy
Buddhist Scientfic View
understanding that things are not what they appear to be is a
fundamental feature of Buddhist philosophy and logic – Buddhist
scientific view, if you like.
The Buddha taught that reality consists of two levels or
dimensions: what he called “relative” and “ultimate”. The relative world
is the one we see and know and experience at this moment, and is
characterised by the mode of perception we associate with the left
brain: it is dominated by a belief in duality: “me” here and everything
else separate from me and over there; a strong all-pervasive sense of
“me” being here as the subject of all experience; all objects (including
ourselves) being separate and having discernable, independent and
enduring identity, that is separate and stand-alone; and, finally, a
conviction that time is linear: that there is past, present and future.
We humans, the Buddha said, are trapped in this relative world simply
because left-brain perception has convinced us that it is the only
reality. It is our conviction in the accuracy of this perception that
causes us to experience it as real.
1 Jill Bolte Taylor PhD: “My Stroke of Light”
reality of this situation is what Buddha called ultimate, and it is
more in accordance with right brain perception: no linear time, no
separate, enduring “me”, no dividing lines and so on.
just as the left brain version of reality overshadows and obscures that
of the right brain, so for most of us the relative view supersedes the
ultimate, and so we are trapped in the relative world and suffer the
consequences of that entrapment. This observation is very important
because it explains why we suffer when we don’t need to; quite simply,
if we believe there is a separate “me” here, then there is someone who
can suffer if things don’t go his or her way. Without the idea of a
separate “me”, there would be nobody to suffer.
we could free ourselves from this egocentric view, we would free
ourselves from the cause of our suffering. This sounds easy, but of
course it is not, because our belief in the reality of egocentric
reality is absolute and unshakeable. We not only believe in the reality
of this separate “me” and cling tenaciously to it, but we also fear and
resist the idea that it may not exist because we see annihilation as the
Buddhism tackles this problem from two directions: first through meditation, and second through analysis.
we are able to stabilize our minds, our focus of consciousness shifts –
perhaps from left to right brain. As a consequence the meditator
experiences a diminishing sense of self and all that is associated with
it. With continued meditation this sense of self vanishes altogether,
revealing what we would call “right brain consciousness” with its
limitless “no separate self and other” qualities and all the non-dual
states that are a part of it. Far from experiencing annihilation, the
meditator experiences a sense of limitless completion and
interconnectedness that is totally devoid of egocentric focus. This
state has traditionally been described as “empty” because it is without
sense of self; it is “empty of self”. It is also without any sense of
anything having any enduring, separate identity. Everything exists in a
state of constant change. Nothing is solid or fixed. This is the basis
of the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. Because the term implies a
negative sense of annihilation, many Buddhists have searched for an
alternative to show that in order to be empty, you have to be there!
does not mean non-existence: it means empty of separate, permanent
self. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche prefers the term “completeness” because,
we experience it we feel complete, and realise that the sense of self
in fact, causes a limitation of what we are actually able to experience.1
Buddhists have emphasised that we must understand emptiness and
dependent arising together. We are empty of separate self, because we
are full of the whole universe. A rose is not a rose: a rose is full of
Therefore, through meditation, we find a path away from egocentric enslavement, towards freedom and compassion.
second approach to freedom from the egocentric view of reality is
through philosophical analysis of the theory of emptiness. This is based
on the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the
way we see the world and the way it is. Our perception is that we are
individuals, separate from the elements of the world that surrounds us;
we are independent, each with distinct characteristics and a central
core. Inevitably, this sense of self gives rise to the formation of
attachments, prejudices and habits such as clinging and
“possessiveness”. Through reasoning and analysis we can free ourselves
from this `relative` reality and achieve `emptiness`: a total absence of
self which no longer limits our possible experience and gives us the
compassion to work for the benefit of other beings.
1 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Mind beyond Death
a mind of desire, hatred, hope and fear, something to be accepted, and
something to be rejected – all of these different aspects of thoughts,
concepts and clinging will naturally be overcome through analysis and
the view of shunyata, or `emptiness`(non solid existence).
the wisdom of understanding, the wisdom of experience and the wisdom
and realization of shunyata, one can totally transcend all the inherent
stress involved with the eight worldly dharmas of gain and loss; fame
and insignificance; praise and criticism, slander or contempt, joy and
surprisingly, the main correspondences between Buddhism and science
have been found in this area, probably because both are asking the same
question – “What is the true nature of reality?”
The Philosophical Traditions
of these teachings, four major analytical philosophical schools
emerged, one of them called Madhyamaka.They hold that objects are made
up of very small, truly existing, invisible particles.
same view was the beginning of the formulation of the Atomic Theory, in
which it was maintained that all chemical substances are composed of
particles that are invisible elementary constituents called atoms. Atoms
were believed to be the smallest irreducible particles of a chemical
substance, and for roughly 100 years students assumed that the atom
could not be split. Scientists were catching up with Buddhist
atomic philosophers, but they hadn’t quite reached the speculative
Buddhist theories recorded in the 4th century CE where we find a discussion of the physical size of different atoms.
Madhyamaka, Sub-atomic Theory and Quantum Physics
Madhyamaka reasoning took a further step and sought to establish that the mind is empty:
We search for the mind, and we are unable to find it……because it has no real nature, no true existence…
Madhyamaka reasoning is in harmony with the teachings of emptiness, (shunyata) expounded
in the Heart Sutra, where we learn that no phenomena, either matter or
mind, possess permanent, immutable or intrinsic nature.
Although atoms were thought to be the smallest building blocks of matter up until the late 19th
century CE, the Rutherford experiment of 1909 indicated that atoms were
made up of a small nucleus (later found to be made of neutrons and
protons) surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Later experiments
discovered many new particles, which were created when neutrons and
protons collided; and in 1963 it was postulated that these particles
could be made of even smaller particles called quarks. This idea was
substantiated when quark-anti-quark pairs were produced. The quarks and
leptons and gauge bosons that are responsible for the forces between
these particles are what are now called “elementary particles”.
in the 1990’s suggested that these elementary particles could be
thought of as vibrations of a one-dimensional extended string. The
string vibrates at different frequencies, which determine the mass of
the elementary particles. So one finds that the elements that make up
our conventional world can be broken into further constituents that can
transmute into each other and which have properties that are quite
different from the matter that we see with our eyes. In that sense the
matter that we experience in our everyday lives lacks inherent existence
and cannot be said to be permanent, immutable, and a substantial
entity. Also, because quantum mechanics governs the behaviour of
sub-atomic matter, the actual existence of these particles in a
conventional sense depends on their being observed. So they exist only
transcript of teaching by V.V. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on Chapter 9
Bodhicharyavatara, by Shantideva, September 1991
is the second way in which the matter we experience in our daily life
is not truly existent. Once again, science is following where Buddhist
philosophers have been, and is in harmony with the Buddha’s teaching on
dependent arising (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada):
that all phenomena are dependently co-arisen from their fundamental
elements or conditions, and have no enduring, independent identity of
their own. They are empty of self (existing on their own accord).
We search for the mind, and we are unable to find it…because it has no real nature, no true existence….
brief analysis of Buddhist and scientific views of reality reveals that
both systems, while using vastly different methods of investigation,
have made almost identical discoveries: the nature of the world around
us is not what it appears to be. To the scientist this is interesting
for a variety of materialistic reasons. To the Buddhist it is an
important ingredient of the philosophy of freedom. If there is nobody
here to grasp and nothing enduring to be grasped, then why not give up
grasping and experience the relief and joy that come with it?
for members of technological societies, the empirical evidence of
science will be an encouragement to rely with greater confidence on
their own discoveries through meditation.
Neuroscience Confirms Positive Effects of Meditation
ground of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion. Students of Tibetan
Buddhism are trained to develop a combination of compassion and
intention called Bodhicitta. 1 All meditation and mind-training is
inspired by this motivation on the understanding that enlightenment is
not possible without it. Methods are graduated, working on the principle
that sustained and repeated mind-training exercises produce cumulative
changes over time – as with physical training.
(mindfulness) meditation is the foundation for all practices. In time
the mind settles, becomes tranquil, and gives rise to stability, clarity
and deepening levels of happiness.
most training students report changes, not only at a psychological
level, but also physically and neurologically. Almost standard amongst
changes reported are increased feelings of happiness, joy, clarity and
peace, often followed by a diminishing sense of “me”, and a loss of
feeling separate from others. This can be followed by a feeling of
expansiveness which becomes limitless, finally taking the meditator into
a state of bliss and clarity where any sense of duality of limitation
descriptions by meditators indicate that profound transformations of
consciousness are brought about by the process, which is what it is
designed to do. Now science is enabling us to ascertain how these
changes manifest in the brain and actually change the physical structure
of the brain.
the past 20 years neuroscientists have shown great interest in the
effects of meditation. In 2002 extensive tests were performed on eight
long-term Buddhist meditators by an American team of top
neuroscientists.1 These were highly sophisticated tests
capturing a moment-by-moment record of changing levels of activity in
different areas of the brain.
One of the long-term meditators was prone to severe panic
attacks as a child. The fact that within claustrophobic space of the MRI
scanner he could focus his mind on an altruistic and compassionate
state confirmed the result of his training in meditation.
one of the tests, brain activity during compassionate meditation was
measured in meditators and a control group. The measurement of
activation in the area of the brain stimulated by maternal love and
empathy was significantly higher in the meditator group. In addition,
the measurements of the long-term meditators were so much higher than in
the control group that the laboratory technicians suspected that there
was a malfunction of the recording machinery. In 2005, Time magazine
interviewed Richard Davidson2 about these exciting results. He admitted: “We didn’t expect to see anything quite that dramatic.”
piece of research is a small sample of a rapidly increasing body of
evidence which establishes that there is an intricate interaction
between how we use our minds and what happens to the brain.
1 Study reported in PNAS, November 16th, 2004. Vol 101 No 46 16373: Long-term meditators self-induced high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice.
2 Richard Davidson: Neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One of the studied meditators comments,
Through the patient tutoring of experts in the fields of psychology and neuroscience….I’ve begun to recognize why,
from an objectively scientific perspective, the practices actually
work: those feelings of limitation, anxiety, fear, and so on are just so
much neuronal gossip. They are, in essence, habits, and habits can be
have confirmed that through meditation changes can take place that
improve our health and our sense of well-being. It is encouraging and
refreshing to realise that what the Buddha taught more than 2500 years
ago is now being brought to the 21st century in the
scientific language of our time. Not only does this enrich and give a
profound perspective to what could otherwise be a cold and soulless
discipline, but it also de-mystifies ancient teachings which describe
states of consciousness in language that seems to place them beyond our
reach. When presented in the language in our time we begin to realise
that we are as capable now of treading the path to enlightenment and
compassion as the Lord Buddha and his disciples were thousands of years
ago. It is simply that today our methods may be different.
mind and doing mind training is possible for everyone. It makes a
person more mature and develops their loving kindness and compassion.
Inner peace can be reached! Less mistakes are made and this positively
influences a person’s family, then - his or her neighbours and through
this the environment and ultimately the world.
world is influenced by human beings. So, if we want to change the world
into a compassionate and positive place, then each one of us has to
change individually and positively. This can be done through facing,
accepting and dealing with our emotions.
Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche
The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Urgyen Drodul Tinley Dorje,ROKPA's founder