|BuddhaSasana Home Page||English Section|
National Science Day Lecture, given at the University of Chiang Mai,
Northern Thailand, on August 16, 1991.
TO TALK OF BUDDHISM we must first talk about its origins. I have said that the origin of religion was the fear of danger, but the origin of Buddhism is no longer the fear of danger, but the fear of suffering. Please note this distinction. In the section dealing with religion we talked about danger, but when dealing with Buddhism we will be talking about suffering, which carries a much broader meaning. Specifically, the fear of danger has its object in external factors, such as floods, earthquakes, and so on, but suffering includes all the problems experienced in life, including those within the mind.
What is suffering? Suffering is the condition of stress and conflict, in short, the human predicament. We could put it very simply and say that suffering (dukkha) is difficulty (panha), because difficulty is what causes stress and frustration.
Other religions looked for the source of danger. As far as man could see, whenever something occurred in human society, there had to be someone to cause or direct it. In society, man was the controller, but the natural world was beyond man's control. Still, man thought there must have been someone directing things, so he searched for this 'someone' and came up with a director, a deity or deities, a supernatural force, the source of all these natural dangers. These were the forces that brought the clouds, the storms, the floods, the fire and so on. This is the emergence of religions.
Ancient man looked at the situation in terms of reward and punishment. It seemed that freedom from danger had to be sought from its source. Observing that in human society there are leaders who wield power, they applied this model to the forces behind nature and came up with the gods. This is why some contemporary psychologists have said that mankind created God in his own image, reversing the Christian teaching that God created man in his own image.
So mankind, seeing these deities as the source of danger, reasoned that it was necessary to please the deities, just as for an earthly leader. This resulted in numerous techniques and ceremonies for showing respect and paying homage, sacrifices, praying and so forth.
The essential factor in determining events in the world, according to these ancient religions, was the will of the deity (or deities).
The factor which tied humanity to these deities or supernatural power was faith. This faith in a deity or deities was demonstrated through sacrifices, prayers, ceremonies and so on.
So we have an overall picture here of a director of events - the will of God; we have the human connection - faith; and we have the method of interaction - sacrifices, prayers and so on. This is the general picture of the role of faith in most religions.
Now, let's see how these factors relate when it comes to Buddhism. As I have mentioned, Buddhism is based on the desire to be free of suffering. What is the appropriate method of practice in respect to suffering? To be free of suffering you must have a method of doing so. To know this, you have to look at where suffering arises from. Where is the source of suffering? Whereas other religions taught that the source of danger was in supernatural forces, Buddhism says that the source of suffering is a natural process which must be understood.
Suffering has an origin which functions according to the natural processes, namely the process of cause and effect. Not knowing or understanding this natural cause and effect process is the cause of suffering. Buddhism delves into the origin of suffering by looking into this ignorance of cause and effect, or ignorance of the Law of Nature.
At this point we have arrived at the heart of Buddhism. Just now I said that the origin of other religions was the awareness of danger, the origin of danger in turn being the will of superior beings or forces; but the source of Buddhism is the awareness of suffering, the origin of which is ignorance of the natural process of suffering, or ignorance of the Law of Nature.
Now we come to redressing the problem. How do we redress the problem? When ignorance of the Law of Nature is the cause, the remedy is its exact opposite, and that is knowledge and understanding of these things, which we call wisdom.
Previously, religions had relied on faith as the connection between human beings and the source of danger. Buddhism changed the human connection to wisdom. At this stage the emphasis has shifted from faith to wisdom, and this is a prime difference of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, human beings must know and understand the process of cause and effect, and then to treat the problem accordingly.
Finally (x) the work of correcting the factors involved in the creation of suffering is a human responsibility, and it is within human potential to do so. Therefore emphasis for solving the problem has shifted from the will of a supernatural force to human endeavour.
These three points are highly significant.
The emphasis in Buddhism shifts from faith to wisdom, and this is a revolutionary change. Such wisdom begins with the desire to know, or the desire for knowledge - before there can be wisdom, there must be an aspiration for it. But this aspiration for knowledge differs from that of science, as I will be pointing out presently.
Another important shift in emphasis in Buddhism is from the directives of a deity to human endeavour. This is one of Buddhism's cornerstones. No matter where Buddhism spreads to, or how distorted the teaching becomes, this principle of emphasis on human endeavour never varies. If this one principle is changed, then we can confidently say that it is no longer Buddhism.
The principle of human endeavour is expressed in Buddhist circles as the Law of Kamma. People may misunderstand kamma, there may be many misconceptions about it, even within the Buddhist world, but no matter how it may vary, kamma always deals with human endeavour.
Buddhism's combination of adherence to the Law of Nature, proclaiming man's independence, and putting wisdom to the fore instead of faith, is a very unique event in the history of religion. It even makes some Western analysts feel that Buddhism isn't a religion at all. Western books on Buddhism often state that Buddhism is not a religion, meaning that it isn't a religion as is understood in Westem cultures.
Therefore we have these three important principles: 1) a Law of Nature; 2) proclaiming man's independence; 3) replacing faith with 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 to see 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 Dhammaniyama 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 Dhammaniyama, or Law of Nature? The monks chant uppadavabhikkhave tathagatanam, anuppadavatathagatanam: "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 interdependence of all things: Buddhism teaches the Law of Dependent Origination. In brief, the essence of this law is :
This translates as:
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 Kalama Sutta, which contains the passage:
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 Kalama 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 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:
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 gods 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, "Babum ve saranam 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 ...
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 reflect 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 Sangha, 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 to solve problems through wisdom is:
1. Dukkha (suffering): We begin with the problem, recognizing that there is one.
2. Samudaya (the cause of suffering-craving based on ignorance): We search out the cause of that problem.
3 Nirodha (the cessation of suffering - Nibbana): 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 aim.(x) 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 Sisapa 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 Nibbana. "
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 arrowhead still embedded within him, his relatives raced to find a doctor. As the doctor was preparing to cut out the arrowhead, the man said, "Wait! I will not let you take out this arrowhead 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 arrowhead taken out. Then, if he still wanted to know the answers to those questions, he could go about 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.
I have already said that most religions saw the events of the world as the work of deities or supernatural forces. If mankind did not want any unpleasant events to befall him, or if he aspired to some reward, he would have to let the deities see some display of worship and obeisance.
This applied not only to external natural events. Even people's personal lives were under the control of the deities. The deity, God, was the creator of the Universe, together with all of its happiness and suffering. He was constantly monitoring mankind's behaviour to ascertain whether it was pleasing to Him or not, and so people were constantly on their guard to avoid any actions which might displease the deity.
According to this standard, all of humanity's behaviour could be classified into two categories. Firstly, those actions which were pleasing to the deity, which were rewarded, and which were known as 'good'; and those actions which were displeasing to the deity, which he punished, and which were known as 'evil'. Sometimes these qualities were seen as being the directives of the deity. Whatever the deity approved of was 'good', whatever the deity forbade was 'evil'. The priests or representatives of the religion were the mediators who informed mankind which actions were good and which were evil, according to the standard as laid down by the deity. These standards for defining good and evil became known as 'ethics' or 'morals'.
Morality, or ethics, is a very important part of religion. You could almost say it was the essence of religion. Westem morality evolved and developed much as I have described it here.
As for science, from the time it parted with religion it interested itself solely with the extemal physical world and completely ignored the abstract side of things. Science took no interest at all in moral or ethical issues, seeing them as concerns of the deity, unfounded on facts, and turned its back on these things altogether. The populations of the Westem countries, or of the countries we know as technologically developed, were captivated by the advances of science. In comparison, religion's teachings of deities and supematural forces seemed ill founded. And so they tumed their backs on religion. At that time morals and ethics lost their meaning. When God was no longer important, morals or ethics, God's set of laws, were no longer important. Many people today, including those in scientific circles, view ethics as merely the arbitrary dictates of certain groups of people, such as priests or religious representatives, at best established to maintain order in society, apart from which they do not have any intrinsic truth.
Those branches of science which study the development of human civilization, especially sociology, and some branches of anthropology, seeing the success of the physical sciences, tried to afford their branches of learning a similar standing, by using principles and methods much the same as the physical sciences. The social sciences tended to see ethics or morals as values which did not have any scientific foundation. They have tended to avoid the subject of ethics in order to show that they, too, are pure sciences void of value systems. Even when they do make studies about ethical matters, they look on them only as measurable quantities of social behaviour.
The physical sciences, the social sciences, and people in the modern age in general, look on ethics as purely conventional creations. They are incapable of distinguishing ethics from their conventional manifestations, which is a step in the wrong direction - in trying to avoid falsehood, they have ended up straying further from truth.
Now let us come back to the subject of Buddhism. In regard to ethics, both science and Buddhism differ from the main gamut of religions. But while science has cut itself off from them, completely disregarding any consideration of ethics or values, Buddhism turns around and studies and teaches the role of ethics within the natural process.
While most religions look at the events of nature, both outside of man and within him, as being the directives of a deity, Buddhism looks at these events as being the normal and natural process of causes and conditions. In regard to human beings and abstract conditions, or values, the same laws apply as to the physical workings of nature. They are part of the stream of causes and conditions, functioning entirely at the directives of the natural laws. The difference in quality is determined by variations within the factors of the stream.
In order to facilitate our understanding of these processes, Buddhism divides the laws of nature into five kinds, called niyama (laws). They are:
1. Utuniyama (physical laws): The natural laws dealing with the events in the natural world or physical environment.
2. Blianiyama (biological laws): The natural laws dealing with animals and plants, in particular heredity.
3. Cittaniyama (psychic laws): The natural laws dealing with the workings of the mind and thinking.
4. Kammaniyama (karmic or moral laws): The natural law dealing with human behaviour, specifically intention and the actions resulting from it.
5. Dhammaniyama (the general law of cause and effect): The natural law dealing with the relationship and interdependence of all things, known simply as the way of things.
In terms of these five divisions of natural law, we can see that science has complete confidence in the dhammaniyama (the general law of cause and effect), while limiting its field of research to utuniyama (physical laws) and bijaniyama (biological laws). As for Buddhism, practically speaking it emphasises kammaniyama (the law of moral action), although one stream of Buddhism, the Abhidhamma (x), stresses the study of the cittaniyama (psychic laws), in relation to kammaniyama and dhammaniyama.
A true understanding of reality is impossible if there is no understanding of all the laws of nature, their interrelation and unity. This includes, in particular, the human element, the mental factors and the values therein, of those who are studying those laws. Scientists may study the physical laws, but as long as they are ignorant of themselves, the ones who are studying those laws, they will never be able to see the truth even of the physical sciences.
On the basic level, human beings live in this physical world on a material plane, but within that physical world is the mental world. As far as the mind goes, human beings are living in a human world, and this human world is of vital importance, wielding an influence over our lives that is far clearer than the influence of the physical environment.
Our daily lives, our thoughts, behaviour and deeds, our communications, and our traditions and social institutions are entirely products of human intentional action, which is known in Buddhism as kamma. Intention is that unique faculty which has enabled human beings to progress to where we have.
The human world is thus the world of intention and follows the directives of intention. In Buddhism it is said: kammuna vattati- loko - the world is directed by kamma. In order to understand the human world, or the human situation, it is necessary to understand the natural law known as the Law of Kamma.
Be it intention, kamma, behaviour, ethics, abstract qualities, values, internal nature, or the human mind - these are all entirely natural. They exist in accordance with the Laws of Nature, not at the directives of deity. Nor are they accidental. They are processes which are within our human capacity to understand and develop.
Please note that Buddhism differentiates between the Law of Kamma and psychic laws. This indicates that the mind and intention are not the same thing, and can be studied as separate truths. However, these two truths are extremely closely linked. The simple analogy is that of a man driving a motor boat. The mind is like the boat and its engine, while intention is the driver of the boat, who decides where the boat will go and what it will do.
A similar kind of natural event may arise from different laws in different situations, while some events are a product of more than one of these natural laws functioning in unison. A man with tears in his eyes may be suffering from the effects of smoke (physical law), or from extremely happy or sad emotional states (psychic law), or it may be the result of anxiety over past deeds (law of kamma). A headache might be caused by illness (biological law), a stuffy or over-heated room (physical law) or it could be from depression and worry (law of kamma).
When people from the West start studying the subject of kamma, or intention, they are often confused by the problem of free will. Is there free will? In actual fact there is no free will, in the sense of being 'absolutely free', because intention is just one of the myriad interrelated cause and effect processes.However, will can be considered free in a relative way. We might say it is 'relatively free', because it is in fact one of the factors within the overall natural process. In Buddhism this is called purisakara. Each person has the ability to initiate thinking and intention, and as such become the instigating factor in a cause and effect process, or kamma, for which we say each individual must accept responsibility.
Misunderstandings, or lack of understanding, in relation to this matter of free will, arise from a number of more deeply rooted misconceptions, in particular, the misconception of self. This concept causes a lot of confusion when people try to look at reality as an actual condition, but are still trapped in their habitual thinking, which clings fast to concepts. The two perspectives clash. The perception is of a doer and a receiver of results. While in reality there is only a feeling, the perception is of 'one who feels'. (In the texts it is said: There is the experience of feeling, but no one who feels.) The reason for this confusion is ignorance of the characteristic of anatta, not self.
Buddhism doesn't stop simply at free will, but strives to the stage of being 'free of will', transcending the power of will, which can only be achieved through the complete development of human potential through wisdom.
Also note that within this process of human development, the areas of the mind and of wisdom are distinguished from each other. Wisdom that is fully developed will liberate the mind. So we have the mind with intention, and the mind with wisdom. However, this is a practical concern, a vast subject which must be reserved for a later time.
My intention here has been simply to show that the attainment of perfect knowledge, or reality, must arise from an understanding of human beings and their place in the natural order, including those abstract conditions and values which exist within them.
See also: Vietnamese translation by Venerable Thich Tam-Quang
to English Index]