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Buddhism and Science

Excerpt from a talk of Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village on Nov. 17, 2005
One day a group of young people from Kalama came to visit the Buddha while he was in the area. They asked the Buddha, "Dear teacher, many teachers have come here and they have each contended that their teaching is true, is the absolute. Each one says that we should follow them and not follow any other teacher. What is your idea?" The Buddha said, "Don't hurry to believe in anything, even if it has been written in the holy scriptures. Don't hurry to believe in anything just because a very famous teacher has said it. Don't believe in anything just because the majority has agreed that it is the truth. You should test anything people say with your own experience before you accept or reject it."

What the Buddha said is truly scientific. Buddhism may not be described as a science, but it has the scientific spirit.

As a scientist, after some time researching and doing a lot of experiments, you discover something. Having made a discovery you have to publish what you have discovered, because you believe that you have found the truth, a scientific truth. After you have published your findings in a science magazine other people will look at it, and there will be a very small number of specialists in your field that will determine whether your finding is the truth or not. To do that they have to go test it by themselves. They cannot just say that what you have said is true, because they are specialists in the field. They have to prove it with their own experimentation. The large majority of people who are not specialists in the field, we just believe, because we do not have the means to test the discovery in order to verify that it is the truth. We have to believe in a very small handful of scientists in the field.

In the domain of science there is a lot of belief. We believe what the specialists say without having tested it ourselves. Even so, after it has been proven to be the truth, ten years later or twenty years later a new truth is found to be higher, to be deeper, to be truer than the earlier truth. And then again there will be a handful of specialists who will try to confirm it, and we, the majority, we just follow. In this way we behave like religious people, even in the domain of science.

What about the practice of Buddhism? In Buddhism, the object of our studies is the mind and how it relates to suffering and happiness. We are not so concerned with the table and the cloud, with the atom and the stars. But we are concerned about suffering and happiness. We are not philosophers. We do not speculate about happiness and suffering. We want to really observe our suffering, observe our happiness. We want to work it out. We want to liberate ourselves from suffering. We want to bring in true happiness. And this is real work that cannot be done just by talking.

When you sit down, follow your breath and generate the energy of mindfulness and concentration you have your instruments to work with. You can recognize and embrace your suffering. You can cultivate the kind of wisdom that can help disintegrate the suffering. You do it in the spirit of empiricism—you really go into it; you do not just speak about it. Your suffering is a reality, and you recognize it. You go into it, you analyze it, and you use mindfulness, concentration, and insight in order to transform it. It is like a scientist using his or her instruments in order to look deeply into the nature of what is there. And after having discovered a method of transformation and healing, you may like to share it with your students or with your friends. There are good meditation practitioners who have more or less the same kind of experiences. They try to verify and to experience the same kind of thing. If they succeed, they might say, "What you have told us is true. I have gone through the same kind of experience." But many people around them just believe, without having had the experience. So there is not a great difference between science and Buddhism. Many Buddhists just believe. There are only a handful of us who can testify to the truth that has been discovered.

Buddhism sometimes describes the mind and sometimes describes the world, but that description is not for the sake of description. That description is for the sake of the practice. If you learn about the mind it is because you want to practice well. It is not because you want to have a beautiful doctrine about the mind. If you speak about impermanence or non-self it is not for the sake of describing reality as being impermanent and free from a separate self. That description is an instrument to help you to liberate yourself, because the truth of impermanence and non-self can help you to overcome your despair, your fear, and so on. So there is a difference.

When a scientist studies a particle he has to use instruments, particle accelerators and the like, but he has to use his mind also. Most of the time scientists stand outside of the particle as an observer, and the particle becomes the object of observation. But in the experimentation of Buddhist practitioners you don't stand outside as an observer. You cannot afford to be an observer. You have to become a participant, because the block of suffering you experience is not the object of your observation. It is you. You are that block of suffering. That is why the Buddha said to practice contemplation of the body in the body, contemplation of the feelings in the feelings. You cannot afford to be an observer standing outside. You have to become one with the object that you observe. That is the difference between science and Buddhism, and modern scientists begin to see that.

The British physicist David Bohm said that in order to really understand the atom you should stop being just an observer. You should begin to be a participant. This is very close to the discipline of meditation.

The political left believes in science, in liberalism and in reason. They are fighting with all their might against fundamentalism and dogmatism, but they still suffer a lot. They do not have enough strength. Politically speaking they have lost the election. Because they support true science and freedom of thought they are anti-dogmatic, yes, but this is still not enough. They have not been able to bring a spiritual dimension into their lives. Is it possible to have a spiritual dimension in our daily life, in our political, economic life, without being caught in fundamentalism? The Buddha proved that he is a liberal. He is very liberal, but he is deeply spiritual. That is why in speaking of biological evolution you have to begin to think about cultural evolution, about a spiritual evolution that has the power to liberate us from dogmatism and fundamentalism. The question is how science and meditation can hold hands with one another in order to go ahead into the future, for our liberation. This is a question of our time.

In August 2006 we shall have a retreat on Mind and Neuroscience, and we will have a chance to go into this problem. Buddhism sometimes appears like a religion, but it is not truly a religion. Sometimes it appears like a science, but it is not a science, because we are concerned with ultimate reality. We like to ask questions, but we also want to transform, to heal. There is within Buddhism a tremendous source of wisdom and experience handed down by the Buddha and many generations of practitioners. We can learn a lot from their experiences so that we can in our turn heal and transform ourselves, and help heal and transform the world.