National Science Day Lecture, given at Chiang Mai University, Northern Thailand, on August 16, 1991, entitled, "Buddhism as the Foundation of Science."
To many people, the notion of a Buddhist monk talking about science may seem surprising or incongruous, but I feel that such a reaction is unwarranted. It might be necessary to come to some understanding with each other before beginning the subject matter proper of this book in order to establish a better frame of mind.
The perception of me as a religious scholar talking about scientific matters may be a result of modern tendencies. Our age is one of specialists. We tend to put people into pigeonholes -- religious, scientific, economic and so on -- each specializing in his or her own particular field. But I don't think of myself as a religious scholar, and I don't want to be called one. I am simply a Buddhist monk.
To be a Buddhist monk is not necessarily to be a religious scholar, and vice versa. To be a Buddhist monk means to live a certain way of life. To use current terminology, we could say that it is a "specialized" way of life. Religion, on the other hand, is a specialized branch of knowledge. One who has a specialized life style has a role to play, defined by the constraints of that life style, which, in this case, is designed to allow him to live as skilfully as possible on both the personal and social levels. Specialized academic disciplines result from dividing knowledge up into categories. There is no consideration of life style involved, it is a purely academic concern. In this light it is inaccurate to call a Buddhist monk a religious scholar.
Today's lecture, "Buddhism as the Foundation of Science," should not be looked on as a meeting between two disparate academic disciplines. This kind of attitude leads to the impression that you are about to witness some kind of strange confrontation. Let us remember that science is our subject of discussion, our meeting ground. Scientists are the owners of this branch of knowledge, the ones most conversant with it, and now the scientists are allowing me, an outsider, to give some reflections about science. If it is understood in this way, the spirit of the lecture will be more easily grasped.
Thus it isn't necessary for the speaker, an outsider, to have such a vast knowledge of the subject of science. He may know some things about science, of much he may be ignorant, he may speak rightly or wrongly, but nonetheless there is something to be gained from the lecture, even if only an idea of how scientists are viewed by outsiders. And of what use is that? Practically speaking, it is impossible to live or act completely alone. We must interact with other ways of thinking and with events around us. We must be able to interact with other people and other branches of knowledge. If such interaction is successful, then the quality of our own work is enhanced. If it is not successful, our own activity or field of knowledge suffers accordingly.
So this lecture is about science through the eyes of an outsider, in this case a Buddhist monk. As to how a Buddhist monk views science, this will become clear as the lecture proceeds.
A second point that I would like to clarify is in relation to the title of the lecture. Not only is a religious person talking about science -- he is even claiming that his religion is the foundation of science! I won't go into the reasons for this title at present, but would simply like to state that it is inspired by the words of a scientist, and an eminent one at that. He didn't use the exact words I have used, but I don't think I have misrepresented him. In any case, I don't put too much weight on the matter, and as I will be explaining it in the progress of the talk, I don't think you need trouble yourselves over whether Buddhism really is the foundation of science or not. Any benefit you obtain from today's lecture, or whether Buddhism really is the foundation of science, are things that you can each decide for yourselves at your own discretion.
I would like to clarify the meaning of two of the words that will be used throughout this talk, and they are "Buddhism" and "science." By Buddhism here I do not mean the institutional form of Buddhism, but its essential teaching, which is an abstract quality. As for science, we may have a problem. Some scientists may feel that in this context, only pure science should be considered, not applied science or technology. But whenever the average person thinks of the word "science," he thinks of the whole totality, not this narrow definition. I myself am an average person, an outsider like most people. I speak of science in a very general sort of way, including both the pure and the applied sciences.
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