title_scie_bu.gif (4512 bytes)

images(5)5.gif (665 bytes)

The natural religions: understanding nature through wisdom

Now in order to clarify matters here, I would like to take up a little of your time by speaking about some of the basic characteristics of Buddhism. Firstly I would like to present some of the teachings from the Buddha himself, expanding on them tosee how they relate to science.

1. Adherence to the Law of Nature:

truth is the Law of Nature, something which naturally exists. The Buddha was the one who discovered this truth. You may have heard the monks chanting the Dhammaniya.gif (845 bytes)ma Sutta at funerals, but most people don't know the meaning of what's being chanted, which is that the truth of nature exists as a normal condition. Whether the Buddha arises or not, the truth is still there.What is this Dhammaniya.gif (845 bytes)ma, or Law of Nature? The monks chant uppa.gif (845 bytes)da.gif (845 bytes)va.gif (845 bytes)bhikkhave tatha.gif (845 bytes)gata.gif (845 bytes)nam.gif (73 bytes), anuppa.gif (845 bytes)da.gif (845 bytes)va.gif (845 bytes)tatha.gif (845 bytes)gata.gif (845 bytes)namb.gif (851 bytes): “Whether Buddhas arise or not, it is a natural, unchanging truth that all compounded things are unenduring, unstable, and not-self.''

Unenduring (anicca)

means that compounded things are constantly being born and dying, arising and passing away.

Unstable (dukkha)

means that they are constantly being conditioned by conflicting and opposing forces, they are unable to maintain any constancy.

Not self (anatta)

means that they are not a self or intrinsic entity, they merely follow supporting factors. Any form they take is entirely at the direction of supporting factors. This is the principle of conditioned arising, the most basic level of truth.

The Buddha was enlightened to these truths, after which He declared and explained them. This is how the chant goes. This first principle is a very important one, the most basic principle of Buddhism. Buddhism regards these natural laws as fundamental truths.

2 The interrelation and inter-dependence of all things:

Buddhism teaches the Law of Dependent Origination. In brief, the essence of this law is

    Imasmimb.gif (851 bytes) sati idamb.gif (851 bytes) hoti           Imasmimb.gif (851 bytes) asati idamb.gif (851 bytes) na hoti

    Imassuppa.gif (845 bytes)da.gif (845 bytes) idamb.gif (851 bytes) uppajjati   Imassa nirodha.gif (845 bytes) idamb.gif (851 bytes)


This translates as:

  When there is this, this is; when this is not, neither is this. Because this arises, so does this; because this ceases, so does this.
  This is a truth, a natural law, which is expanded on in detail in practical applications. Simply speaking, this is the natural law of cause and effect on its most basic level.
  It is worth noting that Buddhism prefers to use the words ‘causes and conditions' rather than cause and effect'. Cause and effect refers to a specific and linear relationship. In Buddhism it is believed that results do not arise simply from a cause alone, but also from numerous supporting factors. When the conditions are ready, then the result follows.

For example:

  suppose we plant a mango seed and a mango tree sprouts. The mango tree is the fruit (effect), but what is the cause of that mango tree? You might say the seed is the cause,  but if there were only this seed, the tree couldn't grow. Many other factors are needed, such as earth, water, oxygen, suitable temperature, fertilizer and so on. Only when factors are right can the result arise. This principle explains why some people, even when they feel that they have created the causes, do not receive the results they expected. They must ask themselves whether they have also created the conditions.  

Please note that this causal relationship does not necessarily proceed in a linear direction. We tend to think of these things as following on one from the other - one thing arises first, and then the result arises afterwards. But it doesn't necessarily have to function in that way.

Suppose we had a blackboard and I took some chalk and wrote on it the letters A, B, and C. The letters that appear are a result. Now what is the cause for these letters appearing on the blackboard? Normally we might answer ‘a person’. If we talk in relation to the white marks on the board we might say 'chalk'. But no matter which factor we take to be the cause, with only one cause, the result cannot arise. To achieve a letter ‘A’ on this blackboard there must be a confluence of many factors - a writer, chalk, a blackboard of suitable colour - just having a blackboard is not yet enough, the board must be a colour that contrasts with the colour of the chalk- there must be a suitable temperature, a suitable moisture content, the surface must be free of excess moisture ... so many things have to be just right, and these are all factors in the generation of the result. Now, in the appearance of that letter ‘A’, it isn't necessary for all the factors involved to have occurred one after the other, is it? We can see that some of those factors must be there at the same time, being factors which are interdependent in various ways, not necessarily following each other in a linear fashion. This is the Buddhist teaching of cause and condition.

3 The principle of faith:

just now I said that Buddhism shifted the emphasis in religion from faith to wisdom, so why should we be speaking about faith again? In regard to this we should understand that faith still plays a very important role in Buddhism, but the emphasis is changed.

Before anything else, let us take a look at how faith is connected in Buddhism to verification through actual experience. The teaching that is most quoted in this respect is the Ka.gif (845 bytes)la.gif (845 bytes)ma Sutta, which contains the passage:

Here, Ka.gif (845 bytes)la.gif (845 bytes)mas,
Do not believe simply because you have heard it.
Do not believe simply because you have learnt it.
Do not believe simply because you have practised it from ancient times.
Do not believe simply because it's rumoure.
Do not believe simply because it's in the scriptures.
Do not believe simply on logic.
Do not believe simply through guesswork.
Do not believe simply through reasoning.
Do not believe simply because it conforms to your Theory.
Do not believe simply because it seems credible.
Do not believe simply out of faith in your teacher.”

This teaching amazed people in the West when they first heard about it, it was one of Buddhism's most popular teachings, because at that time Western culture was just getting into science. This idea of not believing anything too easily, but only through a verifiable truth, was very popular. The Ka.gif (845 bytes)la.gif (845 bytes)ma Sutta is fairly well known to Western people familiar with Buddhism, but the Thai people have hardly heard of it.

The Buddha went on to say in the Kalama Sutta that one must know and understand through experience which things are skilful and which unskilful. Knowing that something is unskilful and harmful, conducive not to benefit but to suffering, it should be given up. Knowing that something is skilful, is useful and conducive to happiness, it should be acted upon. This is a matter of clear knowledge, of direct realization, of personal experience. This is the shift from faith to wisdom.

In addition to this, the Buddha also gave some clear principles for examining one's personal experience. He said, “independent of faith, independent of agreement, independent  of learning, independent of reasoned thinking, independent of conformity with one's own theory, one knows clearly for oneself when there is greed in the mind, when there is not greed in the mind; when there is hatred in the mind and when there is not hatred in the mind; when there is delusion in the mind and when there is not delusion in the mind, in the present moment. “This is true personal experience, the state of our own mind, which can be known clearly for ourselves in the present moment. This is the principle of verifying through personal experience.

4 Proclaiming the independence of mankind:

Buddhism arose among the Brahmanical beliefs, which held that Brahma was the creator of the world. Brahma (God) was the appointer of all events, and mankind had to perform sacrifices and ceremonies of prayer, of which people at that time had devised many, to keep the God happy. Their ceremonies were lavish, all attuned to gaining the favour of the gods and to receiving rewards. The Brahman Vedas stated that Maha.gif (845 bytes) Brahma had divided human beings into four castes. Whichever caste a person was born into, so was that person bound for life. There was no way to change the situation, it was all tied up by the directives of God.

When the Buddha-to-be was born, as the Prince Siddhattha Gotama, the first thing attributed to him was his proclamation of human independence. You may have read in the Buddha's biography, how, when the Prince was born, he performed the symbolic gesture of walking seven steps and proclaiming, “I am the greatest in the world, I am the foremost in the world, I am the grandest in the world.”

This statement can be easily misinterpreted. One may wonder, “Why was Prince Siddhattha being so arrogant?'' But this statement should be understood as the Buddha's proclamation of human independence. The principles expounded by the Buddha in his later life all point to the potential of human beings to develop the highest good. A fully developed human being is the finest being in the world. The Buddha was our example and our representative in this. His attainment of Buddhahood was a realization of human potential. With such potential, it is no longer necessary for human beings to be pleading for help from external sources. Instead they can turn around and better themselves, they can rely on themselves. If a human being becomes a Buddha, even the angels and gods revere him.

There are many examples of this kind of teaching in Buddhism. Consider, for example, the oft-quoted:

Manussabha.gif (845 bytes)tamb.gif (851 bytes) sambuddhamb.gif (851 bytes)

Attadantamb.gif (851 bytes) sama.gif (845 bytes)hitamb.gif (851 bytes)...

Deva.gif (845 bytes)’pi namassan’ti

This translates as, “The Buddha, although a human being, is one Who has trained and perfected himself... Even the gods revere him.”

With this principle, the human position changes. The attitude of looking externally, taking refuge in gots and deities, has been firmly retracted, and people are told to turn around and look at themselves, to see that within themselves lies a potential that can be developed into the finest achievement. No longer is it necessary to throw their fates to the gods. If they realize this potential, even those gods will recognize their excellence and pay reverence. This principle entails a belief, or faith, in the potential of human beings to be developed to the highest level. The Buddha is our example of a fully developed human being.

5 The principle of remedy based on practical and reasoned action 

rather than dependence on external forces. This principle is well illustrated in one of the teachings of the Dhammapada. The stanza begins, “Bahumb.gif (851 bytes) ve saranamb.gif (851 bytes) yanti...'' ''Humanity, being threatened by danger . . .'' This refers to how human beings existed before Buddhism, in much the same way as has been already mentioned about the arising of religions, The stanza goes ...

Human beings, finding themselves threatened by danger,

take refuge in spirits, shrines, and sacred trees. But

these are not a true refuge. Turning to such things as a

refuge, there is no true safety.

Those who go for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma and

Sangha, who understand the Four Noble Truths, seeing

difficulty , the cause of difficulty, freedom from difficulty

and the way leading to the freedom from difficulty,

are able to transcend all danger.”

This is a turning point, shifting the emphasis from pleading with deities to responsible action. Even many Buddhists, unaware of this principle, mistakenly revere the Triple Gem as something holy, as in other religions.

The Triple Gem begins with the Buddha, our example of a perfected human being. This is a reminder to humanity of their potential, and as such encourages us to reject on our responsibility to develop it. Taking the Buddha for refuge is a reminder. As soon as we think of the Triple Gem and the Buddha, we reflect on our responsibility to use wisdom to address the problems of life and develop ourselves.

When we think of the Dhamma, we are reminded that this development of potential must be done through means which conform to the Law of Nature and function according to causes and conditions.

When we reflect on the San.gif (66 bytes)gha, we think of those who have used the Dhamma (teaching) skilfully, truly developing and realizing their potential. These people are living examples of the actual attainment of the truth, of which, through developing ourselves in right practice, we should secure membership.

These are the Three Refuges. If we believe or have faith in these refuges, then we must strive to solve problems like wise human beings. This tenet forces us to use wisdom. The way tosolve problems through wisdom is:

1. Dukkha (suffering):
        we begin with the problem, recognizing that there is one.
2. Sumudaya (the curse of suffering-cvaving based on ignorance):
        We search out the cause of that prolem.
3. Nirodha (the cessation of suffering - Nibba.gif (845 bytes)na):
        We establish our aim, which is to extinguish the problem.
4. Magga (the way leading to the cessation of suffering):
        We practise in accordance with that aims.

        This is the principle of solving problems through intelligence, through human effort.

6 Teaching only those truths which are of benefit.

There are many different kinds of knowledge, many different kinds of truth, but some of them are not useful, having no concern with solving the problems of life. The Buddha did not teach such truths and was not interested in finding out about them. He concentrated on teaching only those truths which would be of practical benefit. This principle is illustrated  in the simile of the leaves, which the Buddha gave while he was staying in the Sa.gif (845 bytes)sapa.gif (845 bytes) forest.

At that time, the Buddha was staying with a company of Monks. One day he picked up a handful of leaves from the forest floor and asked the monks, “Which is the greater number, the leaves in my hand, or the leaves on the trees?''   An easy question, and the monks answered immediately. The leaves in the Buddha's hand were very few, while the leaves in the forest were of far greater number.

The Buddha replied, “It is the same with the things that I teach you. There are many truths that I know, but most of them I do not teach. They are like the leaves in the forest. The truths that I do teach you are like the leaves here in my Hand. Why do I not teach those other truths? Because they are not conducive to ultimate wisdom, to understanding of the way things are, or to the rectification of problems and the transcendence of suffering. They do not lead to the attainment of the goal, which is Nibba.gif (845 bytes)na.''

The Buddha said that he taught the things he did because they were useful, they led to the solving of problems, and were conducive to a good life. In short, they led to the transcendence of suffering.

Another important simile, given on another occasion, was in answer to the questions of higher philosophy. These questions are among the questions with which science is currently wrestling, such as: Is the Universe finite or infinite? Does it have a beginning? The scriptures mention ten stock philosophical questions which had been in existence from before the time of the Buddha. One monk who was interested in such questions went to ask the Buddha about them. The Buddha refused to answer his questions, but instead gave the following simile:

A man was shot by a poisoned arrow. With the arrow- head still embedded within him, his relatives raced to find a doctor. As the doctor was preparing to cut out the arrow- head, the man said, “Wait! I will not let you take out this arrow-head until you tell me the name of the man who shot me. Where did he live? What caste was he? What kind of arrow did he use? Did he use a bow or a cross-bow? What was the arrow made of? Of what was the bow made? Of what was the bow-string made? What kind of feather was attached to the end of the arrow? Until I find out the answers to these questions, I will not let you take this arrow out.''

Obviously, if that man were to wait for the answers to all those questions he would surely die beforehand. Not only would he not find out the information he wanted, but he would die needlessly. What would be the proper course of action here? Before anything else, he would have to have  that arrow-head taken out. Then, if he still wanted to know the answers to those questions, he could go a bout finding out.

In the same way, what the Buddha teaches is human suffering and the way to relieve it. Philosophical questions are not at all relevant. Even if the Buddha answered them, his answers could not be verified. The Buddha taught to quickly do what must be done, not to waste time in vain pursuits and debates. This is why the Buddha did not answer such questions, and only taught those truths which are of benefit.

These are some of the general characteristics of Buddhism. Having listened to this much, please do not come to any hasty conclusions about Buddhism's similarity or otherwise from science. There may be some points which sound quite similar, but within those similarities there are differences.

bottom_menu_1.jpg (11145 bytes)

Copyright © 2002 Mahidol University All rights reserved.
Mahidol University Computing Center, Rama VI Road, Rajathewi, Bangkok 10400, THAILAND Tel. (662) 354-4333