Science & philosophy in Indian Buddhist classics

By Arvind Sharma, Times of India, January 6, 2018

New Delhi, India -- To make classical Buddhist scientific and philosophical thought on the nature of reality accessible to modern readers, the XIV Dalai Lama – who considers the dialogue of religion and science a crucial component of humanity’s future – conceptualised a five-part book on the subject. The Physical World is the first volume, edited by Thupten Jinpa and brought out by Wisdom publications.

The volume consolidates understanding of the physical world as found in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition under such headings as knowable objects, subtle particles, time, the cosmos and its inhabitants, and fetal development. It is a pioneering work, brilliantly adapted for promoting the dialogue between religion and science.

According to the Dalai Lama, classical Buddhist treatises refer to three domains: a scientific one, which would cover the empirical descriptions of the outer world of matter and the inner world of the mind; a philosophical one, which would cover the efforts to ascertain the nature of ultimate reality; and a religious one, which would refer to the practices of the Buddhist tradition. The present volume, covers the scientific dimension; so, too, the second. The third and fourth volumes will focus on the philosophical dimension while the fifth will cover the religious dimension. The material of the first two volumes is taken from the Tengyur, which consists of Buddhist treatises translated into Tibetan.

The interaction between science and religion in the Christian West has often been characterised by a measure of hostility, because there, religion is based on revealed dogmatic truth and science on reason and experimentation. This, however, need not necessarily apply in the case of science and Buddhism, as in this case, one witnesses a broad methodological convergence. The reason is that while the ultimate goal of religious life in Christianity can only be achieved after death, the fruit of religious life in Buddhism can be experienced in this very life. Thus the conclusions of Buddhism become as falsifiable and verifiable as those of science. This endows the encounter between science and Buddhism with unforeseen possibilities of maturity.

The Enlightenment view of reason, treated the rational as representing the antithesis of the irrational so that this binary grid of the rational and the irrational has become the dominant trope of modernity. Life, however, may be said to consist not just of the rational and the irrational, but also of the non-rational. This category would cover such aspects of life as relate to our emotional attachment to our near and dear ones, to the appreciation of the world of art, music and literature and humanity’s urge for transcendence.

There is also a subtler issue involved. Science per se is not interested in human well-being but rather in the search for truth. Any benefit accrued is a foreseeable effect of science but not its intended one, whereas the intended goal of Buddhism is to save humanity from suffering. Hence science, in view of its neutrality in terms of value, may be harnessed for either good or evil. By contrast, the sole goal of Buddhism is the alleviation of human suffering which means that even its “truths” are meant to ensure human well-being and therefore are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.

In science, in the strict sense, truth alone is the end. Axiologically speaking, there is a fundamental gulf fixed between science and Buddhism.  Science can explain the how of things but not their why, whereas the raison d’etre of Buddhism is the why of suffering.

(The writer teaches in the School of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal)