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Buddhism as the Foundation of Science

Bhikkhu Prayudh Payutto

National Science Day Lecture, given at the University of Chiang Mai,
Northern Thailand, on August 16, 1991.


The role of faith

NOW LET US TAKE a comparative look at some of the qualities related to Buddhism, science and other religions, beginning with faith.

Most religions use emotion as the energy for attaining their respective goals. Emotion is the inspiration which arouses belief and obedience to the teachings, and emotions, particularly those which produce faith, are a necessary part of most religions. Emotions are also that which preserves faith, for which reason it is quite important to ensure that these emotional states are sustained. To put it another way, because faith is so crucial to these religions, emotion is encouraged.

While faith is the most important force in most religions, Buddhism stresses wisdom, giving faith a place of importance only in the initial stages. Even then, faith is only used very carefully, as wisdom is considered to be the prime factor in attaining to the goal of Buddhism.

Even so, faith does have a place in the Buddhist teachings, but in a different role, with a different emphasis. There are also elements of faith in scientific research, where it has had a decisive role in science's advances in research and enquiry.

In order to clearly understand faith, it will be helpful to analyse it into different kinds. Generally speaking, faith can be divided into two main kinds:

The first kind of faith is that which obstructs wisdom. It relies on inciting, or even enforcing, belief, and such belief must be complete and unquestioning. To doubt the teaching is forbidden. Only un- questioning obedience is allowed. This first kind of faith does not allow any room for wisdom to develop.

Faith in most religions is of this variety. There must be belief and there must be obedience. Whatever the religion says must go, no questions asked. This feature of religion is known as dogma, the doctrine that is unquestionable, characterized by adherence in the face of reason. Buddhism, however, is a religion free of dogma.

The second kind of faith is a chanel for wisdom. This kind of faith stimulates curiosity; it is the incentive to begin learning. In this world there are so many things to leam about. Without faith we have no starting point or direction to set our learning, but when faith arises in a certain person, subject or teaching, it gives us a starting point. Faith awakens our interest and encourages us to approach the object of that interest. Faith in a person, in particular, leads to approaching and questioning that person. Having faith in the order of monks, for example, encourages us to approach them and learn from them, to gain a clearer understanding of the teachings.

An example of this kind of faith can be seen in the life story of Sariputta(x). He became interested in the teaching of the Buddha through seeing the monk Assaji walking on alms round. He was impressed by the monk's bearing, which suggested some special quality, some special knowledge or spiritual attainment. Wanting to find out what this special quality was, he approached Assaji and asked for a teaching. This is a good example of this second kind of faith.

(x) Venerable Sariputta, one of the Buddha's foremost disciples, met Assaji going on alms round and was inspired enough by his appearance to approach him and ask for teaching. The short teaching he received was enough to put Sariputta's mind beyond doubts about the authenticity of the Buddha's teaching and to become a bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk.

So this kind of faith or inspiration is a positive influence, an incentive for learning. It also gives a point of focus for our learning. Whatever direction faith leans to, our energies are motivated accordingly. A scientist, for example, having the faith that a particular hypothesis might be true, will direct his enquiry specifically in that direction, not being distracted by irrelevant data.

These two kinds of faith must be clearly distinguished. The faith that functions in Buddhism is the faith which leads to wisdom, and as such is secondary to wisdom. Such faith is found in both Buddhism and science.

This kind of faith has three important functions in relation to wisdom. They are:

1. It gives rise to an interest and incentive to begin the process of learning.
2. It provides the energy needed in the pursuit of that learning.
3. It gives direction or focus for that energy.

Apart from these functions, well-directed faith has a number of further characteristics, which is shown in the following consideration of the Buddhist system of practice:

What is the goal of Buddhism? The goal of Buddhism is liberation, transcendence, or, to put it in contemporary terms, freedom. Buddhism wants human beings to be free, to transcend defilements and suffering.

How is this freedom attained? It must be attained through wisdom, understanding of the truth, or the law of nature. This truth is as equally attainable by the disciples as it was by the Teacher, and their knowledge is independent of him. The Buddha once asked Sariputta, "Do you believe what I have been explaining to you?" Sariputta answered, "Yes, I see that that is so. " The Buddha asked him, "Are you saying this just out of faith in me?"

Sariputta answered, "No, I answered in agreement not because of faith in the Blessed One, but because I clearly see for myself that this is the case."

This is another of Buddhism's principles. The Buddha did not want people to simply believe him or attach to him. He pointed out the fault of faith even in another person, because he wanted people to be free. This liberation, or freedom, the goal of Buddhism, is attained through wisdom, through knowledge of reality.

But how is that wisdom to arise? For those people who know how to think, who have what we call yoniso-manasikara (x), it isn't necessary to rely on faith, but most people must use faith as a stepping stone or starting point.

(x) Systematic attention, wise consideration, critical reflection.

These conditions are connected like links in a chain. In order to attain liberation, it is necessary to develop wisdom. Wisdom, as the condition for realizing the goal, is in turn dependent on faith. This gives us three stages:

Faith - Wisdom - Liberation

Faith is the initiator of the path to truth. It in turn leads to wisdom, which in turn leads to liberation. This model of conditions is the defining constraint on faith in Buddhism. Because faith is related to both wisdom and liberation, it has two characteristics:

1. It leads to wisdom
2. It is coupled with, and leads to liberation.

Faith in Buddhism does not forbid questions or doubts, nor demand belief or unquestioning committal in any way. Both Buddhism and science possess this kind of faith; they both use faith as a stepping stone on the path to realizing the truth. Now the question arises, what kind of faith is it which leads to wisdom?

In the context of today's discussion, we could say that the faith that leads to wisdom is the belief that this universe, or the world of nature, functions according to constant and invariable laws. This is faith in the Law of Nature, or the belief that nature has laws that are accessible to man's understanding.

This faith is the impetus which leads to the search for truth, but because faith in itself is incapable of leading directly to the truth, it must be used to further develop wisdom. At this stage the faith of Buddhism and the faith of science look very similar. Both have a belief in the laws of nature, and both strive to know the truth of these laws through wisdom. However, the similarity ends right here. From this point on, the faith of Buddhism and the faith of science part their ways.

The difference between faith in Buddhism and science

We have said that the source of both religion and science was the awareness of problems in life, the dangers in the natural world. In search of a remedy for this problem, human beings looked on the natural environment with trepidation and wonder. These two kinds of feeling led to both the desire for a way out of danger, and the desire to know the truth of nature. From this common origin, religion and science part their ways.

But apart from their differences, both science and most religions have one important similarity, and that is their tendency to look outwards, as has been explained in Chapter Two. In this respect, we find that science, in particular, confines its research exclusively to external, physical phenomena. Science does not include mankind in its picture of the universe. In other words, science does not consider the universe as including mankind, and does not look at mankind as encompassing the whole of the universe.

Looking at nature in this way, science has only one object for its faith, and that is the physical universe - the faith that nature has fixed laws. In brief we could call this 'faith in nature'.

But the objective of Buddhism is to solve the problem of human suffering, which arises from both internal and external conditions, with an emphasis on the world of human behaviour. At the same time, Buddhism sees this process as a natural one. For this reason, Buddhism, like science, has faith in nature, but this belief or faith also includes human beings, both in the sense that human beings are a part of nature, and in the sense that human beings encompass the whole of nature within themselves, in that they are subject to the laws of nature.

The faith of science has only one object, but the faith of Buddhism has two objects, and they are:

1. Nature
2. Mankind

In one sense, these two kinds of faith are one and the same thing, because they are both beliefs in nature, the first kind more obviously so. But the first kind of faith does not cover the whole picture, it includes only the external environment. In Buddhism, mankind is recognized as a part of nature. The physical human organism is as natural as the external environment.

Moreover, human beings possess a special quality which differs from the external manifestations of nature, and distinguishes mankind from the world around him. This is a quality peculiar to human beings. You could even say it is their 'humanness'. This peculiar quality is mankind's mental side, the subject of values.

In Buddhism we believe that this abstract quality of human beings is also a natural phenomenon, and is also subject to the natural laws of cause and effect, and as such is included in natural truth. In order to know and understand nature, both the physical and the mental sides of nature should be thoroughly understood.

Bearing in mind that human beings want to know and understand nature, it follows that in order to do so, they must understand the ones who are studying. These mental qualities, such as faith and desire to know, are all abstract qualities; they are what I call 'values'. They all come into the human abstract realm, and as such must come into our field of research and understanding.

Moreover, on the ultimate level, the attainment of truth is also the attainment of the highest good. In the end, the truth and the most excellent kind of life, or the highest truth and the highest good, are one and the same thing. If human qualities are not studied, any knowledge or understanding of nature is bound to be distorted and incomplete. It will be incapable of leading to true understanding of reality.

Although science does have faith in nature, and strives to know the truths of nature, it doesn't look at nature in its entirety. Science ignores human values and as a result has an incomplete or faulty view of nature. Science's search for knowledge is inadequate and cannot reach completion, because one side of nature, the internal nature of man, is ignored.

It is noteworthy that the faith of science, like Buddhism, also has a suggestion of being divisible into two aspects. That is, there is both faith in nature, and faith in human potential. Let us look at the faith of science, which, strictly speaking, is the conviction that nature has immutable laws, the truth of which is accessible to human intelligence.

The faith of science can be divided into two aspects, and has two objects, the same as the faith of Buddhism. That is, firstly there is belief in the laws of nature, and secondly, belief in the ability of human intelligence to realize those laws, which is simply faith in human potential. However, this second aspect of faith is not clearly stated in science, it is more an assumption. Science does not mention this second kind of faith, and pays little attention to the development of the human being. It concentrates on serving only the first kind of faith.

In this respect, science differs from Buddhism, which holds the faith in human potential to be of prime importance, and has expanded this subject into practical forms which have been systematized into the larger part of Buddhism's teachings. Throughout the Buddhist teachings, faith is always connected between three points. That is, there is conviction in the human potential to develop wisdom and realise the truth of the laws of nature, this conviction being supported by the deeper-rooted conviction that nature functions according to fixed laws; and there is the conviction that the realization of these laws of nature will enable human beings to realize the highest good, which is liberation from suffering.

This kind of faith creates a significant distinction between Buddhism and science. In Buddhism there is a search for truth in conjunction with a training to realize human potential. This development of human potential is also what determines the way knowledge is used. This being the case, the probability of using the knowledge gained from studying the laws of nature to serve the destructive influences of greed, hatred and delusion is minimized. Instead, knowledge gained will be used in a constructive way.

As for science, this one-sided faith in the laws of nature is liable to cause the search for knowledge to be aimless and undisciplined. There is no development of the human being, and there is no guarantee that the knowledge gained will be used in ways that are beneficial to humanity. Science's search for the truths of nature does not, therefore, help anybody, even the scientists, to attain contentment, to relieve suffering, to ease tension or to have calmer and clearer minds. At the same time, science opens wide the way for undesirable values to direct scientific development, leading it in the direction of greed, hatred and delusion. Examples of these undesirable values are the desire to conquer nature and materialism, which have controlled scientific development in the last century or more, causing exploitation of and destruction to the environment. If scientific development continues this trend, it will be unsustainable.

It should be stressed that human beings are intelligent beings, or to put it more directly, they are beings which have intention. They are beings which make kamma, and all kinds of kamma must rely on volition. For that reason, human beings have a sense of values. Given that they have faith in the laws of nature and a desire to understand those laws, they must also have a sense of values, be it conscious or otherwise. This quality will condition the style and direction of their methods for finding the truth, as well as the context and way in which that truth is seen.

If mankind's awareness of values does not penetrate to this basic quality of unity within his mind, in other words, he does not develop the highest good in conjunction with his search for truth of nature, his searching, in addition to being incapable of being fully successful (because it ignores one side of reality), will be overwhelmed by inferior values, and the search for knowledge will be uncontrolled and misdirected. Inferior values will influence the search for knowledge, distorting any truths that are discovered.

Simply speaking, the knowledge of scientists is not independent of values. A simple example of one of these secondary values is the pleasure obtained from, and which lies behind, the search for knowledge and the discoveries it yields. Even the pure kind of search for knowledge, which is a finer value, if analysed deeply, is likely to have other sets of values hidden within it, such as the desire to feed some personal need, even some pleasant feelings, within the researcher.

I would like to summarize at this point that we have been talking about two levels of values, which are the highest value, together with those intermediate values which are compatible with it. The highest value is a truth which must be attained to, it is not something which can be artificially set up in the mind. Scientists have faith in nature already. Such conviction is already a value within them from the outset, but this faith must be expanded on to include the whole of nature and humanity, which entails faith in the highest good, simply by bearing in mind that the laws of nature are connected to the highest good.

When there is the correct value of faith, secondary values which are related to it will also arise; or these may be further underscored by intentional inducement in oneself. This will serve to prevent values from straying into undesirable areas, or from being taken over by inferior values.

Faith, which is our fundamental value, conditions the values which are secondary to it, in particular the aspiration to know. From faith in the truth of nature arises the aspiration to know the truth of nature, or the truth of all things. Such an aspiration is important in both science and Buddhism.

From faith in the existence of the highest good and in human potential arises the aspiration to attain the state of freedom from suffering, to remedy all problems and pursue personal development.

The first kind of aspiration is the desire to know the truth of nature. The second aspiration is the desire to attain the state of freedom. When these two aspirations are integrated, the desire for knowledge is more clearly defined and directed. It becomes the desire to know the truth of nature in order to solve problems and lead human beings to freedom. This is the consummation of Buddhism. When these two kinds of aspiration merge, we have a cycle, a balance, a sufficiency. There is a clear limit to our aspiration for knowledge, our knowledge being used for the express purpose of creating a quality of life for the human race. In short, our aspiration for knowledge is firmly related to the human being, and this defines the way our knowledge is to be used.

As for science, originally there was merely the aspiration for knowledge. When the aspiration for knowledge is aimless and undirected, what results is a random collection of data, an attempt to know the truth behind nature by looking further and further outward - truth for its own sake. The scientific search for truth lacks direction. But human beings are driven by values. Because this aspiration for knowledge is without clear definition, it throws open the chance for other aspirations, or lesser values, to fill the vacuum. Some of these ulterior aims I have already mentioned, such as the desire to conquer nature, and later on, the desire to produce an abundance of material wealth. These two aspirations have created a different kind of cycle.

I would like to reiterate the meaning of this cycle: it is the aspiration to know the truths of nature in order to exploit it for the production of material goods. This cycle has been the cause of innumerable problems in recent times: mental, social, and in particular, as we are seeing at present, environmental.

This is because the thinking of the industrial age has caught science by its loophole, an undefined aspiration for knowledge, which is human action done without consideration for the human being. At the present time we are experiencing the ill effects of this loophole: problems with the environment and elsewhere, arising from the belief in man's dominion over nature and the adherence to materialism.

This kind of thinking has caused a tendency to excess in human undertakings. There are no limits placed on the search for happiness. The search for happiness is endless, the destruction of nature is endless. Problems are bound to arise. This is one point at which Buddhism and science part their ways.

If we analyse further, we will see that the reason science has this loophole of being undirected is because it looks for truth exclusively in the external, material world. It does not search for knowledge within the human individual.

Science is not interested in, and in fact is ignorant of, human nature, and as a result has become an instrument of industry and its selfish advances on the environment. This ignorance of human nature is ignorance of the fact that pandering to the five senses is incapable of making mankind happy or contented. This kind of desire has no end, and so the search for material wealth has no end. Because this abundance of material goods is obtained through exploitation of nature, it follows that the manipulation of nature is also without end and without check. Ultimately, nature will not have enough to satisfy human desires. Even if human beings completely destroy nature, it won't be enough to satisfy human desire. It would probably be more correct to say that this exploitation of nature in itself gives man more misery than happiness.

Man-centred versus self centred

Just now I mentioned some important common ground in Buddhism and science, both in the areas of faith and of aspiration to knowledge. Now I would like to take a look at the object of this faith and aspiration to knowledge. The object is reality or truth. Our aspiration and our faith are rooted in the desire for truth or knowledge. When we have reached the essence of the matter, which is knowledge or truth, our aspiration is fulfilled. This means that humanity must understand the truth of the laws of nature.

I would like to stress one more time that in Buddhism our goal is to use the knowledge of truth to improve on human life and solve problems, to attain a life that is perfectly free. On the other hand, science has as its goal the utilization of its knowledge for the conquest of nature, in order to provide a wealth of material goods. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the words of Rene Descartes, whose importance in the development of Western science and philosophy is well known. He wrote of the purpose of science as part of the struggle to "render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature."

With different goals, the object of knowledge must also be different. What is the object of knowledge in Buddhism? The prime object of our enquiry is the nature of the human being. Human beings are the object of knowledge, and from there our study spreads out to incorporate all the things with which we must deal externally. Mankind is always the object, the centre from which we study the truth of nature.

In science, on the other hand, the object of research is the external, physical environment. Even though science occasionally looks into the human being, it is usually only as another physical organism within the material universe. Mankind as such is not studied. That is, science may study human life, but only in a biological sense, not in relation to 'being human' or 'humanness'.

So the field of the Buddhist search for knowledge is the human being, while that of science is the external world. Taking this point as our reference, let us take a look at the respective extents of the nature that science seeks to know, and the nature that Buddhism seeks to know.

Buddhism believes that human beings are the highest evolution of nature. For that reason, mankind must encompass the entire spectrum of reality within himself. That is, the human organism contains nature on both the physical and mental planes. On the physical plane we have the body, made up of the elements and connected to the external physical world. However, the physical world does not include the world of values, or the mind. For that reason, through studying mankind it is possible to know the truth of all aspects of nature, both the physical and the abstract.

Science studies nature only on the material plane, in the world of matter and energy, and is not interested, and does not recognize, the factor of mind, consciousness or spirit. Science searches from the outside inwards. Having reached the human organism, science studies only 'life', but doesn't study the human being. Science knows only the facts of the physical world, but does not know the nature of the human being, or human nature.

I have been talking so far about basic principles. Now I would like to make a few general observations.

Just now I stated that Buddhism puts mankind at the centre, it is anthropocentric. Its express aim is to understand and to develop the human being. Science, on the other hand, is interested only in the external world. It seeks to know the truths of things outside of the human being.

Over the years, as science incorporated the intention to conquer nature into its values, science once again put man at the centre of the picture, but in quite a different way from the way Buddhism does. Buddhism gives human beings the central position in the sense of recognizing their responsibilities. It emphasizes mankind's duty toward nature. Buddhism puts mankind in the centre insofar as he must develop himself, to remedy problems. This is what is of real benefit, enabling human beings to attain the transcendence of suffering, freedom and the highest good.

Science, in incorporating the view of the desirability of conquering nature into its aspirations, placed mankind in the centre of the picture once more, but only as the exploiter of nature. Man says "I want this," from where he proceeds to manipulate nature, to mould it to his desires. Simply speaking, science's placing of man in the centre is from the perspective of feeding his selfishness.

In relation to the object of study, Buddhism places mankind in the centre. Man becomes the truth which must be studied, and that in order to be able to effectively develop human potential. But science, at the outset, in terms of truth to be studied, directs its attention solely towards the material world. Then it puts mankind in the centre as the agent who will make use of these material objects to feed his desires. Buddhism and science are thus both anthropocentric, with the distinction that while Buddhism is man-centred, science is self-centred.

The second observation I would like to make is in relation to Pure Science. Is science pure or impure?

The term'Pure Science', so named because it is reputed to be 'science and only science', that is, pure knowledge without any concern for practical application, is used to distinguish it from Applied Science or technology. But nowadays science is not so pure. Granted, in the sense that it has a relatively pure drive to study the laws of nature, it can be said to be pure, but when these other values infiltrate into scientific research it becomes impure.

A similarity of methods with a difference of emphasis

Having looked at the aim of enquiry, let us now consider the means for attaining that aim. What is the method used to find this knowledge? In Buddhism, the method for finding the truth is threefold.

Firstly, awareness of experience must be direct and impartial. Impartial awareness of experience is awareness of things as they are. Buddhism stresses the value of seeing the truth right from the very first awareness: when eye sees sights, ear hears sounds, and so on.

For most human beings, this is already a problem. Awareness is usually in accordance with the way people would like things to be, or as they think they are, not as they really are. They cannot see things the way they are because of mistakes, distortions, biases, and misconceptions.

Secondly, there must be ordered thinking, or thinking that is sytematic. In addition to a method for cognizing data in an accurate way, there must also be an accurate way of thinking.

Thirdly, our method for verifying the truth, or researching knowledge, is through direct experience.

How to ensure that the cognition of experience will be unbiased? In general, whenever human beings cognize experience, there are certain values which are immediately involved. Right here, at the very first arising of awareness, there is already the problem of whether the experiencer is free of these values or not.

What are these values? The events which enter into our field of awareness will possess different qualities, causing either pleasant or unpleasant feelings. All of our experiences will be like this. If it's pleasant, we call it happiness, while if it is unpleasant, we call it suffering.

When awareness arises, and we experience a pleasant feeling, the workings of the mind will immediately proceed to liking or disliking. We call it 'delight and aversion', or love and hate. Cognition of sensations therefore has characteristics of affinity or antipathy and delight and aversion incorporated into it. People build these reactions into habits from the day they are born, making them extremely fluent. As soon as an experience is cognized, these values of comfort, discomfort or indifference, immediately follow, and from there to love or hate, delight or aversion.

After the arising of delight, aversion, like, dislike, or love or hate, there is thinking in accordance with and under the influence of these feelings. If there is attraction, thinking will take on one form; if there is repulsion, thinking will take another form. Because if this, experience is distorted, swayed or biased. Awareness is false, there is proliferation and choice in the collection of data. Only some perspectives are seen, not others, and so the knowledge that arises as a result is not clear or comprehensive. In short, awareness is not of things as they really are.

For that reason, in Buddhism we say that we must establish ourselves correctly from the beginning. There must be awareness of things as they are, awareness with sati (recollection, or mindfulness), neither delighting nor being averse. Experiences must be perceived with an aware mind, the mind of a student, let's say, or the mind of an observer, not with a mind that is loving and hating.

How do we cognize with a mind that is learning? In brief, there are two ways to cognize with a learning mind:

1. Cognizing by seeing the truth: that is, to be aware of things as they are, not being swayed and distorted by the powers of delight and aversion, love or hate. This is a pure kind of awareness, bare perception of experience without the addition of any value-judgements. This is referred to in the scriptures as "perceiving just enough for the development of wisdom (nana)", that is, just enough to know and understand the experience as it is, and for the presence of recollection ( sati), that is, in order to collect data. Specifically, this is to see things according to their causes and conditions.

2. Cognizing in a beneficial way: that is, cognizing in conjunction with a skilful value, one that will be truly useful, rather than in order to cater for, pander to or frustrate the senses. This is to perceive experiences in such a way as to be able to make use of them all, both the liked and the disliked.

This second kind of knowing can be enlarged on thus: experience is a natural function of life, and life is involved with the natural environment in order to benefit from it. But in order for life to benefit from experiences, we must perceive them correctly. That is, there must be a conscious attempt to perceive in such a way as to see only the perspective that will be of benefit in solving problems and leading to development in life. Otherwise, awareness will be merely a tool for satisfying the sense-desires, or, if not, then a cause for frustrating the sense-desires, and any benefit will be lost. This kind of awareness perceives experiences in such a way as to make use of them. No matter whether experiences are good, evil, comfortable or not, they can all be used in a beneficial way. It all depends on whether we learn how to perceive them properly or not.

In this case, where our aim is to find out the truth, we must emphasize the first kind of awareness. In this awareness, if the wrong channels are avoided, the effects of delight and aversion do not occur, and awareness will be of the learning variety.

This kind of awareness is very important in studying or learning. We must begin our learning right at the first moment of awareness. In Buddhism this point is greatly stressed cognizing in order to learn, not in order to indulge in like or dislike, or to feed sense desires. Science may not speak about this in so many words, or emphasize it, but if the aim is to perceive the truth, this method is essential.

The second factor in attaining knowledge is right thinking. This means thinking that is structured, reasoned and in harmony with causes and conditions. In Buddhist scriptures many ways of thinking are mentioned, collectively known as yoniso-manasikara, or skilful reflection. Skilful reflection is an important factor in the development of Right View, understanding or vision in accordance with reality. This is to see things according to their causes and conditions, or to understand the principle of causes and conditions.

Some of the kinds of skilful reflection explained in the texts are:

1. Searching for causes and conditions: This kind of thinking was of prime importance in the Buddha's enlightenment. For example, the Buddha investigated vedana, the experience of pleasure and pain, by asking "On what do these feelings of pleasure and pain depend? What is their condition?"

Reflecting in this way, the Buddha saw that phassa, sense contact, is the condition for feeling. "Now what is the condition for phassa?" The Buddha saw that the six sense bases are the condition for phassa ... and so on. This is an example of thinking according to causes and conditions.

2. Thinking by way of analysis: Life as a human organism can be analysed into two main constituents, body and mind. Body and mind can both be further analysed. Mind, for example, can be analysed into vedana (feeling), sanna (perception), sankhara (volitional activities), and vinnana (consciousness) (x), and each of these categories can be further divided down into even smaller constituents. Feeling, for example, can be divided into three kinds, five kinds, six kinds and more. This is called 'thinking by analysing constituents', which is a way of breaking up the overall picture or system so that the causes and conditions involved can be more easily seen.

(x) These are the four mental khandhas which, together with rupa, or material form, go to make up the whole of conditioned existence.

3. Thinking in terms of benefit and harm: This is to look at things in the light of their quality, seeing the ways in which they benefit or harm us, not looking exclusively at their benefit or their harm. Most people tend to see only the benefits of things that they like, and only the faults of the things they don't like. But Buddhism looks at things from all perspectives, teaching us to see both the benefit and the harm in them.

These different kinds of thinking, about ten are mentioned in the scriptures, are known as yoniso manasikara. They are a very important part of the Buddhist way to truth.

In its broadest sense, thinking also includes the way we perceive things, and so it includes the level of initial awareness, and, like those forms of awareness, can also be divided into two main groups - that is, thinking in order to see the truth, and thinking in a way that is beneficial. However I will not expand on the subject at this point as it would take up too much time.

Continuing on, the third method for attaining the truth in Buddhism is that of verifying through personal experience. One of the important principles of Buddhism is that the truth can be known and verified through observation as a direct experience (sanditthiko, paccattam veditabbo vinnuki). See, for example, the Kalamasutta mentioned earlier, in which the Buddha advises the Kalamas not to simply believe in things, summarizing that "when you have seen for yourself which conditions are skilful and which unskilful, then strive to develop the skilful ones and to give up the unskilful." This teaching clearly illustrates the practice that is based on personal experience.

Looking at the story of the Buddha, we can see that he was using this method throughout his practice. When he first left his palace in search of enlightenment, he practiced according to the practices and methods which were practiced at that time ... asceticism, yoga, trances and the rest. Even when he went to live in the forest, the practices he undertook were all ways of experimenting. For example, the Buddha told of how he went to live alone in wild jungles, so that he could experiment with fear. In the deep hours of the night, a branch would crack and fear would arise. The Buddha would always look for the causes of the fear. No matter what posture he happened to be in, if fear arose, he would maintain that posture until he had overcome it. Most people would have run for their lives! The Buddha didn't run, he stayed still until he had overcome the problem. Another example of the Buddha's experimentation was with good and bad thoughts. The Buddha experimented with his thinking until he was able to make unskilful thoughts subside.

The Buddha used the method of personal experience throughout his practice. And when he was teaching his disciples, he taught them to assess the teacher closely before believing him, because faith must always be a vehicle for the development of wisdom. The Buddha taught to closely assess teachers, even the Buddha himself, both from the perspective of whether he was teaching the truth, and also in the sense of the purity of the teacher's intentions.

Testing the teacher's knowledge can be done through considering the plausibility of the teaching. Testing the teacher's intentions can be done by considering the teacher's intentions in teaching. Does this teacher give his teaching out of desire for a personal reward? Does he want any gift or personal gain, other than the benefit of the listener, for his teaching? If, after assessing the teacher, one still has confidence in him, then one can receive the teachings. This assessment and evaluation proceeds through all the levels of the teacher-disciple relationship.

We could also look into the teaching of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which emphasizes insight meditation. When we are practicing insight meditation, we must always consider and reflect on the experiences that come into our awareness, as they arise. Whether a pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling arises, whether the mind is depressed or elated, the Buddha taught to look into it and note its arising, its faring and its passing away.

Even in the highest stages of practice, when assessing to see whether one is enlightened or not, we are told to look directly into our own hearts, seeing whether there is still greed, hatred and delusion or not, rather than looking for special or miraculous signs.

Because the emphasis and field of research in Buddhism and science differ in terms of observation, experiment and verification, results in the two fields will differ. Science strives to observe events solely in the physical universe, using the five senses, with the objective of manipulating the external physical world. In the language of Buddhism we might say that science is expert in the fields of utuniyama (physical laws) and bijaniyama (biological laws).

Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasizes the study of the human organism, accepting experiences through all of the senses, including the sixth sense, mind. The objective of Buddhist practice is to attain the highest good and an understanding of the truth of nature. Even before the objective is reached, there is redressing of problems and advances in human development. For that reason, Buddhism has many teachings and methods dealing with observation, experimentation and verification of mental phenomena and in relation to human behaviour. In Buddhist terminology we would say that Buddhism has its strength in the fields of kammaniyama (moral laws) and cittaniyama (psychic laws).

If it were possible to incorporate the respective fields of expertise of both science and Buddhism, bringing the fruits of their labours together, we might arrive at a balanced way for leading human development to a higher level

Differences in methods

While on the subject of the three methods for finding knowledge, I would like to look at the differences between these methods in Buddhism and in science.

Firstly, science uses the technique of amassing knowledge in order to find truth. This amassing of knowledge is completely divorced from concerns of lifestyle, whereas in Buddhism, the method of attaining knowledge is part of the way of life. Science has no concern with lifestyle, it looks for truth for its own sake, but in Buddhism, method is part of the way of life - in fact it is the way of life - having a positive effect on life in the present moment. .Consider, for example, the effect of clear awareness, without the interference of delight and loathing, on the quality of life. The Buddhist search for knowledge has great worth in itself, regardless of whether or not the goal is attained.

Science takes its data exclusively from the experiences arising through the five senses, while Buddhism includes the experiences of the sixth sense, the mind, which science does not acknowledge. Buddhism states that the sixth sense is a verifiable truth. However, verification can only really be done through the respective senses from which that data arose. For instance, to verify a taste we must use the tongue; to verify volume of sound we must use the ear, not the eye. If we want to verify colours, we don't use our ears. The sense base which verifies sense data must be compatible with the kind of data that is being verified.

If the sixth sense is not recognized, we will be deprived of an immense amount of sense data, because there is much experience which arises exclusively in the mind. There are, for example, many experiences within the mind which can be immediately experienced and verified, such as love, hate, anger, fear. These things cannot be verified or experienced through other sense organs. If we experience love in the mind, we ourselves know our own mind, we can verify it for ourselves. When there is fear, or a feeling of anger, or feelings of comfort, peace, or contentnent, we can know them directly in our own minds.

Therefore, in Buddhism we give this sixth sense, the mind and its thinking, a prominent role in the search for knowledge or truth. But science, which does not acknowledge this sixth sense, must resort to instruments designed for the other five senses, mainly the eyes and ears, such as the encephalogram, to study the thinking process.

Scientists tell us that in the future they'll be able to tell what people are thinking simply by using a machine, or by analysing the chemicals secreted by the brain. These things do have a factual basis, but the truth that these things will reveal will probably be like Sir Arthur Eddington's "shadow world of symbols". It is not really the truth, but a shadow of the truth.

This indicates that scientific truth, like the scientific method, is faulty, because it breaches one of the rules of observation. The instruments do not correspond with the data. As long as this is the case, science will have to continue observing shadows of reality for a long time to come.

Now this sixth sense, the mind, is also very important in science. Science itself has developed through this sixth sense, from the very beginnings right up to and including the experimental and summary levels. On the first level, before any other senses can be used, the scientist must utilize thinking. He must organize a plan, a method of verification, and he must establish an hypothesis. All of these activities are mental processes, which are dependent on the sixth sense, the mind. Even in practical application there must be the mind following events with awareness, taking notes. And the mind is the arbitrator, the judge of whether or not to accept the various data that arise during the experiment.

The final stages of scientific enquiry, the assessment and conclusions of the experiment, the formulation of a theory and so on, are all thought processes. We can confidently say that the theories of science are all results of thinking, they are fruits of the sixth sense, which is the headquarters of all the other senses. Buddhism acknowledges the importance of the sixth sense as a channel through which events can be directly experienced.

The important point is that awareness must be received through the appropriate sense organ. Something which must be cognized by the eye must be cognized by the eye. Something which must be cognized by the tongue must be cognized by the tongue. By the same token, something which must be cognized through the mind cannot be cognized with eyes, ears or any sense organ other than the mind.

The truth of the mind is a verifiable cause and effect process. It is subject to the laws of nature. Even though it may seem very intricate and difficult to follow, Buddhism teaches that the mind conforms to the stream of causes and conditions, just like any other natural phenomenon.

In the material world, or the world of physics, it is recognized that all things exist according to causes and conditions, but in cases where the conditions are extremely intricate, it is very difficult to predict or follow these events. A simple example is weather prediction, which is recognized as a very difficult task, because there are so many inconstants. The sequence of causes and conditions within the mind is even more complex than the factors involved in the weather, making prediction of results even more difficult.

Human beings are a part of nature which contain the whole of nature within them. If people were able to open their eyes and look, they would be able to attain the truth of nature as a direct experience. Using scientific instruments, extensions of the five senses, is a roundabout way of proceeding. It can only verify truth on some levels, just enough to conquer nature and the external world (to an extent), but it cannot lead man to the total truth of reality.

So far we have covered the differences and similarities in scope and object of Buddhism and science, the types of knowledge that are being looked for, the methods used for finding that knowledge, and the utilization of the knowledge gained, or the overall objective of this knowledge. Even though the methods for finding the truth have some similarities, they entail a difference of scope and emphasis, because the truths that are being searched for are different.


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See also: Vietnamese translation by Venerable Thich Tam-Quang

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updated: 27-10-2001