The Scientific Buddha

Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
University of Michigan

According to Buddhist doctrine, there can be only one buddha for each historical age. A new buddha appears in the world only when the teachings of the previous buddha have been completely forgotten, with no remnant—a text, a statue, the ruins of a pagoda, or even a reference in a dictionary—remaining. Because the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha—that is, our Buddha—remain present in the world, we have no need for a new buddha. But in the nineteenth century, a new buddha suddenly appeared in the world, a buddha who is not mentioned in any of the prophecies. What he taught is said to be compatible with modern science, and so I call him the Scientific Buddha. Today, the Scientific Buddha is often mistaken for Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, the real Buddha. But they are not the same. And this case of mistaken identity has particular consequences for those who seek to understand and practice the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Buddhism is a religion that has been described as both a philosophy and a science. It is a religion whose founder claimed to be neither a god nor a prophet of God, but a man, who took the title of Buddha, “the awakened one.” This man, through his own efforts and his own investigations, discovered the most profound principles of the universe, and then compassionately taught them to others. In his first sermon, he taught what are known as the four noble truths: first, that life is qualified by suffering; second, that suffering has a cause; third, that there can be a permanent cessation to suffering; fourth, that there is a path to the cessation of suffering. This fourfold sequence reflects the scientific approach of the physician: the Buddha identified the symptoms, he made a diagnosis, he gave a prognosis, and he prescribed a cure.

The Buddha described a universe that was not created by God but that functioned according to laws of causation. Indeed, the most famous statement in all of Buddhism is not a prayer, a mantra, or a profession of faith, but a summary of the Buddha’s teaching: “of those things that have causes, he has shown their causes. And he has also shown their cessation.” This law of causation is not limited to the material world, but extends also to the moral realm, where virtue leads eventually to happiness and sin to suffering, not through the whims of a capricious God, but through the natural law of karma, a law that, unlike the theistic religions, offers an adequate answer to the question of why the innocent child must suffer.

The Buddha understood the operations of the mind in precise detail, explaining how desire, hatred, and ignorance motivate actions that eventually result in all manner of physical and mental pain, and he set forth the practice of meditation to bring the chattering mind and the unruly emotions under control in order to reach a state of serenity. But beyond this, he analyzed the myriad physical and mental constituents that together are called the person, finding among them nothing that lasts longer than an instant. Thus, he discovered, through his analysis, that there is no self, that there is no soul, that what we call the person is but a psychophysical process, and that the realization of this fundamental truth results in a certain liberation.


The Buddha then extended this analysis to the universe, declaring the universal truth of pratītyasamutpāda, dependent origination, according to which everything is interrelated, each entity connected to something, nothing standing alone, with effects depending on their causes, with wholes depending on their parts, and everything depending for its existence on the consciousness that perceives it. Yet, whether wave or particle, there is no uncertainty about the ultimate nature of reality, which the Buddha called śūnyatā, or emptiness.

The Buddha discovered these truths not through revelation but through investigation and analysis, testing hypotheses in the laboratory of his mind to arrive at proofs. He articulated these truths in his teachings, called the dharma, truths that derive not from faith, but from the Buddha’s own experience. And having reached those conclusions, he did not declare them to be articles of faith, famously telling his followers: “O monks, like gold that is heated, cut, and rubbed, my words should be analyzed by the wise and then accepted; they should not do so out of reverence.”

And when he died, he did not ascend into heaven. He lay down between two trees and said to his monks, “All conditioned things are subject to decay. Strive on with diligence.” Then he passed away, like a flame going out.

Some 2500 years later, the following quotation about Buddhism was ascribed to Albert Einstein: “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” Einstein’s “prophecy” cannot, incidentally, be located in any of his writings. But there is something about Buddhism, and about the Buddha, that caused someone to ascribe this statement to Einstein, the Buddha of the Modern Age. And since the time when Einstein didn’t say this, intimations of deep connections between Buddhism and science have continued, right up until today.

I had imagined that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science derived from the 1960s, gaining their first popular expression in Fritjof Capra’s 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics. The claims did derive from the ’60s, but I was off by a century. Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s. Such statements appeared Europe and America as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles. They also appeared in Asia, as Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries. Thus, to understand what the compatibility of Buddhism and science means today, it is necessary to understand what it meant a century and a half ago.

Buddhists first encountered science, perhaps ironically, in the guise of Christianity. In missionary attacks on Buddhism, from the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier in Japan in the sixteenth century to the Wesleyan minister Spence Hardy in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century, Christianity is proclaimed as superior to Buddhism in part because it possesses the scientific knowledge to accurately describe the world, something that Buddhism lacked. For the missionaries, then, science was not an opponent of religion, or at least of the true religion, but its ally. Science would serve as a tool of the missionary and as a reason for conversion. Later, science would be portrayed as the product of a more generalized “European civilization,” something that this civilization would take around the world; the vehicle for that journey was colonialism.

The efforts by Buddhist elites of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to counter these claims and to argue that, on the contrary, Buddhism is the truly scientific religion (an argument that they seem to have eventually won) were directly precipitated by the Christian attacks. In a sense, the Buddhists wrested the weapon of science from the hands of the Christians and turned it against them. Whether to counter the missionary’s charge that Buddhism was superstition and idolatry, or to counter the colonialist’s claim that the Asian was prone to fanciful flights of mind and meaningless rituals of body, science proved the ideal weapon for the Buddhists. It was not Christianity but Buddhism, in fact, that was the scientific religion, the religion best suited for modernity, not just in Asia but throughout the world. Buddhism was the opposite of Christianity. Christianity has a creator God, and Buddhism has no God; Christianity has faith, Buddhism has reason; Christ is divine, the Buddha is human. And it was this human, this Asian, this Buddha, who knew millennia ago what the European was just beginning to discover.

Some even went so far as to declare that Buddhism was not a religion at all, but was itself a science, a science of the mind. The implications of such a statement become evident in light of Victorian theories of social evolution, which saw the human race progressing from the state of primitive superstition, to religion, and then to science. As a science, Buddhism—condemned as a primitive superstition both by European and American missionaries and by Asian modernists—was able to leap from the bottom of the evolutionary scale to the top, bypassing the troublesome category of religion altogether.

But if Buddhism was compatible with the science of the nineteenth century, how can it also be compatible with the science of the twenty-first? If the Buddha long ago understood Newtonian physics, did he also understand quantum mechanics? Science has obviously made huge advances over the past century and a half in every domain, yet claims for the Buddha’s prescience have remained persistent over this period. Furthermore, for the Buddhist, the content of the Buddha’s enlightenment, however it has been defined, cannot change. It is an article of faith in all of the various forms of the tradition called Buddhism—whether it is a religion, a philosophy, or a science—that its truth can be traced directly back to the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment two and half millennia ago. How can the same timeless truths be constantly reflected in discoveries that have changed, and continue to change, so drastically over time?

For the Buddha to be identified as an ancient sage fully attuned to the findings of modern science, it was necessary that he first be transformed into a figure who differed in many ways from the Buddha who has been revered by Buddhists across Asia over the course of many centuries. The Buddha was first encountered by European missionaries and travelers as but one of many idols, an idol known by many names. It was only in the late seventeenth century that the conclusion began to be drawn that the various statues seen in Siam, Cathay, Japan, and Ceylon, each with a different name, all represented the same god. And it was not until the early nineteenth century that it was known with certainty that that god had been a man, and that that man had been born in India. By that time, Buddhism was all but dead in India, and European scholars, many of whom never met a Buddhist or set foot in Asia, created a new Buddha, a Buddha made from manuscripts. This was the age of the quest for the historical Jesus. European philologists set out on their own quest for the historical Buddha, and they felt they found him. This Buddha was portrayed as a prince who had renounced his throne, who proclaimed the truth to all who would listen, regardless of their social status, who prescribed a life dedicated to morality, without the need for God. Such a savior held a special appeal to Europeans and Americans in the last half of the nineteenth century, an appeal only heightened by the fact that unlike Jesus, the Buddha was not a Jew, but an Aryan. It was this Buddha, unknown in Asia until the nineteenth century, who would become the Buddha we know today, and who would become the Scientific Buddha.

In the long history of the discourse of Buddhism and science, what has been meant by Buddhism, as well as what its goals are perceived to be, has changed. In the beginning, Buddhism was the original Buddhism postulated by European Orientalists, a Buddhism that then came to be identified with the Theravada traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, or at least with their Pali canon. In the period after the Second World War, Buddhism became Zen, especially as it was represented by D. T. Suzuki. During the 1960s and ’70s, Buddhism was often the Madhyamaka philosophy of Nāgārjuna, and the doctrine of emptiness. Over the past two decades—at least before “mindfulness” came into vogue—the Buddhism in dialogue with science has largely been Tibetan Buddhism, a form of Buddhism that just a century ago was regarded as a form of superstition so degenerate that it did not deserve the name Buddhism, but was referred to instead as lamaism. A century later, the figure once known to Europeans as the Grand Lama of Lhasa, shrouded in mystery for so long, holds annual seminars with some of the leading scientists in the world.

The referent of “science” has also changed. Although quantum physics and cosmology still capture attention in some quarters today, the greatest energy is being directed toward neuroscience, and especially research on meditation. The assertions being made in this domain are qualitatively different from the assertion that the Buddha understood the theory of relativity. At the more recent turn of the century, meditation has become the centerpiece of the Buddhism and science discourse. Experiments are currently being conducted, data are currently being gathered, and that information is being broadly interpreted, with some scientists seeing more in it than others. But if forms of Buddhist meditation are shown to reduce what we today call “stress,” what, if anything, does that mean? Is there a danger in turning Buddhism into a form of self-help, or has Buddhism always been, in its own way, a self-help movement?

In recent years, meditation has been tested for its benefits for weight loss, for lowering blood pressure, for lowering cholesterol, and for reducing substance abuse. That is, meditation is regarded in these studies as a therapy for stress reduction. Indeed, one of the forms of meditation examined in the federal study is MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which seeks to induce a form of awareness that focuses on the present moment, observing “the unfolding of experience, moment to moment.”

Is stress reduction a traditional goal of Buddhist meditation? A glimpse at any number of forms of Buddhist meditation suggests that that is not the aim. Take, for example, one of the most common teachings of the Nyingma or “Ancient” sect of Tibetan Buddhism, called the four ways of turning the mind away from saṃsāra (blo ldog rnam bzhi). These are part of the so-called preliminary practices (sngon ’gro), meditations that must be completed in order to receive tantric initiation. Versions of these practices are found among all four of the major sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

The first of these is meditation on the rarity of human birth, how, among the beings that populate the six realms of rebirth, those reborn as humans with access to the Buddha’s teaching are incredibly rare. The second meditation is on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time of death, the recognition that one will definitely die, yet the time of death is utterly indefinite. If this is the case, if one cannot say with certainty which will come first—the next moment or the next lifetime—what pleasure is to be found in the world? The third is to meditate on the workings of the law of karma, how negative deeds done in the past will always ripen as suffering and how over the beginningless cycle of rebirth each of us has committed countless crimes. The prospect of eternal suffering lies ahead. And what are those sufferings? The fourth meditation is on the faults of samsāra, visualizing in detail the tortures of the eight hot hells and the eight cold hells, the four neighboring hells, and the various trifling hells; the horrible hunger and thirst suffered by ghosts; the sufferings of animals, the sufferings of humans that we know so well, even the sufferings of gods. For in Buddhism, the gods also suffer.

The goal of such meditation is to cause one to regard this life as a prisoner regards his or her prison, to cause one to strive to escape from this world with the urgency that a person whose hair is on fire seeks to douse the flames. The goal of such meditation, in other words, is stress induction. This stress is the result of a profound dissatisfaction with the world. Rather than seeking a sense of peaceful satisfaction with the unfolding of experience, the goal of this practice is to produce a state of mind that is highly judgmental, indeed judging this world to be like a prison. This sense of dissatisfaction is regarded as an essential prerequisite for progress on the Buddhist path. Far from seeking to become somehow “non-judgmental,” the meditator is instructed to judge all of the objects of ordinary experience as scarred by three marks: impermanence, suffering, and no self.

With that prerequisite in place, the Buddhist practitioner embarks on a path intended not to reduce stress or lower cholesterol, but to uproot more fundamental forms of suffering. As we have seen, these include what are referred to as the sufferings of pain; in the case of humans, these include birth, aging, sickness, and death, losing friends, gaining enemies, not finding what you want, and finding what you don’t want. And the sufferings of pain are only the most overt. The Buddha also spoke of what he called the sufferings of change. These, in fact, are feelings of pleasure, which, by their very nature, will eventually turn into pain. The claim here is that pleasure and pain are fundamentally different: that pain remains painful unless something is done to alleviate it, while pleasure will naturally turn into pain. The most subtle form of suffering of all is one to which the unenlightened are said to be oblivious: that our minds and bodies are so conditioned that we are always subject to suffering in the next moment.

This is not to suggest that research on the neurology of meditation should not be conducted. Meditation is the virtuoso practice par excellence of the tradition, and monks have devoted themselves to its practice, and other monks to its theory, for more than two millennia. Clearly something was occurring in their brains, regardless of how it was described, and it would be fascinating to know whether it could be somehow measured. And regardless of how far such neurological data must stray from the traditional instructions for meditation and the meditative states said to result from them, it would be a great loss should the rich vocabulary and imagery of Buddhist meditation somehow be abandoned in the process of scientific research.

Like the Buddha’s original teachings, the neurology of the Buddha’s enlightenment is irretrievable. And so the question of the origin of doctrine remains in the domain of myth. But Buddhist monks and nuns have meditated for millennia, and they have done so based on discursive instructions, a discourse that has long claimed to result in the deepest states of awareness of which the human mind is capable. If there is to be a dialogue between Buddhism and science, it will come in the form of translation, an activity central to the spread of the dharma over the centuries and across the realms. Here, the translation will not be the translation of the four levels of the formless realm into levels of blood pressure, but the more challenging translation of doctrine into meditative states and meditative states into scientific data.

Time in Buddhism is not cyclic, as is often claimed. Worlds come in and out of existence, in phases of creation, abiding, destruction, and nothingness. Beings wander among the six realms. Yet time moves forward to a time when there is no time, when samsāra itself comes to an end. Despite the confusion that seems to surround us, there is movement forward.

This cosmic order is disrupted by the Scientific Buddha. He appeared in the world before the teachings of the Buddha of our age, Śākyamuni Buddha, had been forgotten, before his teachings had run their course. The Scientific Buddha was not predicted by a previous buddha, nor did the world await his coming. And yet he has served a useful role. He was born into a world of the colonial subjugation of Asia by Europe. He fought valiantly to win Buddhism its place among the great religions of the world, so that today it is universally respected for its values of reason and nonviolence. We might regard the Scientific Buddha as one of the many “emanation bodies” (nirmāṇakāya) of the Buddha who have appeared in the world, making use of skillful methods (upāya) to teach a provisional dharma to those temporarily incapable of understanding the true teaching. For this buddha was stripped of his many magical elements and his dharma was deracinated. The meditation that he taught was only something called “mindfulness,” and even then, a pale form of that practice. That is, he taught something that no other buddha in the past had taught: stress reduction.

Previous buddhas had increased stress, explaining, “Monks, all is burning,” in the Fire Sermon; that we are trapped in a house on fire, in the Lotus Sutra; that we should regard the world as a prisoner regards his prison on the night before his execution. Previous buddhas sought to create stress, to destroy complacency, in order to lead us to a state of eternal stress reduction, that state of extinction called nirvana.

The Scientific Buddha is a pale reflection of the Buddha born in Asia, a buddha who entered our world in order to destroy it. This buddha has no interest in being compatible with science. The relation of Buddhism and science, then, should not be seen as a disagreement over when and how the universe began. It should not be seen, in Stephen Jay Gould’s memorable phrase, as “nonoverlapping magisteria,” with science concerned with fact and religion concerned with morality. It should not be seen, in Buddhist terms, as the two truths, with science concerned with the conventional truth, and Buddhism concerned with the ultimate truth. Buddhism and science each have their own narrative, each their own telos. If an ancient religion like Buddhism has anything to offer science, it is not in the facile confirmation of its findings.

One of the most famous statements in Buddhist literature occurs in the Diamond Sutra, where the Buddha says to the monk Subhūti, “In this regard, Subhūti, one who has set out on the bodhisattva path should have the following thought, ‘I should bring all living beings to final extinction in the realm of extinction without substrate remaining. But after I have brought living beings to final extinction in this way, no living being whatsoever has been brought to extinction.’ Why is that? If, Subhūti, the idea of a living being were to occur to a bodhisattva, or the idea of a soul or the idea of a person, he should not be called a bodhisattva. Why is that? There is no dharma called ‘one who has set out on the bodhisattva path.’”

The appeal that we continue to remember the Buddha in the various ways that he has been understood over the long history of Buddhism in Asia is not to suggest that Mount Meru can be found using GPS or that Noah’s Ark will ever be unearthed. This is not to claim that Buddhist descriptions of the world carry the same status as the descriptions of the most current scientific research (that is, those descriptions that have not yet been displaced). Nor is it to consign the Buddha to some vague realm of “the ultimate,” conceding all else to “the conventional.” It is to say, instead, that the Buddha, the old Buddha, not the Scientific Buddha, presented a radical challenge to the way we see the world, both the world that was seen two millennia ago, and the world that is seen today. What he taught is not different, it is not an alternative; it is the opposite. That the path that we think will lead us to happiness leads instead to sorrow. That what we believe is true is instead false. That what we imagine to be real is unreal. A certain value lies in remembering that challenge from time to time.

To understand oneself, and the world, as merely a process, an extraordinary process of cause and effect, operating without an essence, yet seeing the salvation of others, who also do not exist, as the highest form of human endeavor. This is the challenge presented by that passage from the Diamond Sutra. The scientific verification of this bold claim would seem to lie, like buddhahood itself, far in the future.  ■

Donald S. Lopez is Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. He has written extensively on aspects of religions of Asia, and his books include Prisoners of Shangi-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West; The Story of Buddhism; Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed; The Madman’s Middle Way and A Study of Svātantrika. Professor Lopez also serves as chair of the Michigan Society of Fellows.

© Donald S. Lopez

The article was adapted from The Scientific Buddha: His Brief and Happy Life (Yale University Press, 2012)

With kind permission from the author.

Images: © TP. Buddha statue, Bodhicharya Berlin, 2014.