The purpose of science is to seek the truth and to understand the workings of everything. Scientists want to know not only what goes on at subatomic level but also how the universe itself operates. They observe the phenomena around them and develop theories to explain them. Theories are nothing more than possible explanations of things until such time as they can be tested and proved by rigorous experiment.
The purpose of religion is to seek the truth and to understand the workings of everything. Religions have developed in response to mankind’s yearning to know the answers to big questions such as “Why is the universe there? – How does it work? – What is the meaning of life? – How do I fit in? – What am I?” Added to these philosophical questions are those expressing deeply felt concerns such as, “Why is there so much suffering in the world? – How can I be happy? – What happens when I die? Theories and philosophies have been developed to answer these big questions. Often it is accepted that we can never fully understand everything and that faith is required in order to accept these theories and therefore be happy. Faith might, for example, be in the existence of the supernatural, or of a being or beings living in a realm that is inaccessible to ordinary humans and who have created things the way they are. By their very definition, the existence of such beings cannot be proved by experiment.
These two approaches have traditionally been quite separate and even totally incompatible. Scientific proof is fundamentally different from “blind” religious faith. Modern civilisation, especially in the West, has become increasingly based on Science, which has contributed enormous benefits to mankind, and religion has therefore been in decline.
The burning desire to understand everything is still the driving force of Science. When Isaac Newton observed an apple falling to the ground, he asked himself why this should happen. He did not rest until he had discovered the force of gravity. His great discovery, together with his deep understanding of other phenomena, such as expressed in his Laws of Motion, are still the basis of the intricate calculations that enable astronomers to predict the orbits of planets and their satellites and military scientists to work out the ballistics of their weapons.
The scientific world was revolutionised when Albert Einstein showed how matter and energy are related and how the effect of gravity is dependent on time, now seen as a fourth dimension. He explained that gravity can be considered as “curved space” a concept that has enabled astronomers to understand such things as how the earth actually manages to stay in orbit around the sun. Everyone knows of his famous equation e = mc², where e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. Knowledge of this relationship is not the same as really understanding it and only physicists can form a concept of it in their minds.
Other scientists studying matter at subatomic level have developed theories that seem to explain what is happening there. At this level matter does not really seem to exist at all. Everything seems to boil down to minute particles constantly in motion and related to each other in ways that depend on energy and time and on the probability of certain events occurring. These laws, described in quantum physics, do not seem to tally with Einstein’s theories. And so there is a search for a set of scientific principles that really do explain everything - a “Law of Everything”. The best modern contender is the “string theory” which postulates that everything in the entire universe is made up of minute “strings” of energy, constantly in motion and relating to each other in different ways to produce different kinds of matter and everything else.
About 2500 years ago, a man named Siddhartha Gautama sat under a tree in Northern India and started meditating. He had decided not to rise until he had answered those same big questions that have always bothered mankind. He wanted to understand everything as it really was and not as it appeared to be. After a prolonged period he came to a perfect understanding of what reality was. This great event is known as his “enlightenment” and he was thereafter known to all as the “Buddha”, meaning “the enlightened one”.
The Buddha developed theories to explain his understanding. He typically looked at reality from various viewpoints. In examining the nature of existence he said that there is in fact no inherent existence in anything at all. Nothing in the entire universe has existence in its own right. Everything depends upon something else for its own existence which can therefore only ever be “relative” existence. Another of his findings was that even this relative existence is not permanent in any way. It is constantly changing and the prime reason for change is the law of cause and effect (Karma). The basic “content” of everything is therefore “nothingness” (Shunyata) and only manifests as “something” when a temporary set of conditions, or “energies”, are present. So everything in the universe is the result of a cosmic interplay between the unseen (energy) and the seen (matter). None of these results is constant because the causes themselves are always changing.
With regard to human happiness the Buddha taught that we must learn not to cling onto “things” such as possessions or relationships as sources of happiness because there is no permanent substance or reality to these things. He taught us to regard ourselves as an integral part of everything and everyone in the entire universe. Because we are essentially “one” with everything and everyone we can only be truly happy when we realise that we cannot be so on our own. To be truly happy we have to strive to make everyone happy and we must work on our own minds so that we can see things clearly. The great Buddhist qualities of loving-kindness and compassion are a natural result of this kind of thinking.
“Oneness” with everything is easy to say but difficult to grasp. It is useful to resort to analogies to help us understand. Analogies can form part of our contemplation of life, part of our meditation. The following is an example of how we may contemplate our oneness with everything.
Imagine that you are a wave, a single wave on the surface of the vast ocean. The ocean represents the universe. You have a separate identity in that you have movement and form and an apparent life of your own. You may be a small ripple or you may be a giant tidal wave with terrible power at your disposal. There are many other waves each having its own characteristics - these represent all the other living beings in the universe. You are not the ocean and yet you only exist because of it. You are made of it and you cannot really distinguish the difference between the water making you up and the water forming the vast ocean itself. You cannot exist without the ocean and the ocean cannot exist without you because it is impossible to distinguish where you end and the ocean begins.
The Buddha instructed his disciples not to accept anything as true simply because they heard it from a respected person or simply because it was written in holy scripture. He said that they should test every theory in the laboratory of life and in the light of reason and logic. A teaching should only be accepted it can be proved in this way. This thinking should be applied to the whole of the Buddha’s teaching, collectively referred to as the “Buddha Dharma”. He went on to say that we should base our very lives on the Dharma and not on him as a person.
The Buddha left behind a huge volume of teachings, recorded in the Buddhist Sutras, and Buddhists of various schools have developed many approaches to “living the Buddha Dharma”. Some of these approaches became so complex over time that only a monastic existence provided any hope of success in following them. Other schools over-simplified the teachings and even brought in an element of “blind faith” to make things simpler for ordinary people.
In thirteenth century Japan, a reforming monk named Nichiren really wanted to find the Buddhist equivalent of what our present day Scientist’s are seeking – the “Law of Everything”. He wanted to find a way in which ordinary people could follow the Dharma in the midst of their everyday life and achieve the absolute kind of happiness that the Buddha himself had achieved. After many years of study and contemplation, Nichiren concluded that the culmination of the Buddha’s teachings was to be found in the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra teaches that everyone has the potential to be a Buddha, irrespective of education, social class or gender. All one has to do is to practice the sutra or teachings. The Sutra does not however go on to tell us how this should be done. Nichiren’s enormous contribution to Buddhism was to give the world a method of following the Buddha’s instructions to the letter. He defined his “Law of Everything” as “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo”.
“Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo” can be translated as “I take refuge in the wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Sutra”. Nichiren taught his followers to recite or chant this phrase over and over again, like a mantra, as a way of concentrating the mind whilst contemplating a special scroll, or “mandala”, upon which is a calligraphic representation of enlightened human life . This practice can be thought of as a “holistic” form of meditation in which attention is paid to sound, sight, breath and posture. Nichiren taught that this practice must be backed up by study of Buddhist philosophy and by right living or self-transformation. A new school of Buddhism evolved from his teachings and is becoming known in the West largely through the efforts of the lay Buddhist society known as the “Soka Gakkai International”, which is striving for world peace based on the propagation of Nichiren’s teachings.
Nichiren Buddhism, along with other schools like Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, is part of an amazing growth in the number of people practising Buddhism today. One reason for this upsurge in interest is that the mind-training techniques of Buddhism provide a perfect antidote to the stresses of modern living. Everyone wants peace of mind. Other techniques and therapies can provide this of course, but people are still seeking answers to the big questions and Buddhism’s basic “scientific” approach strikes a chord with people who are no longer prepared to take a “leap of faith” in order to make sense of life. There is no conflict between Buddhism and Science. Both are seeking the truth. Indeed many Buddhists consider Scientific truth as a part of the Dharma.
At an audience with the Dalai Lama, the respected leader of Tibetan Buddhism, a western student asked him how he would react if science could prove without doubt that a teaching based on Buddhist scripture was untrue. The Dalai Lama thought quietly for a moment and then replied that if this were to be proved then Buddhism would simply have to accept it.
The following words of Einstein, the father of modern physics, will provide a fitting final thought:
"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal god, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity."