Oct 11, 2013

Science and Buddhism

By Melvin E. Klegerman
Washington, D.C.

The following article is based on a presentation made on August 2, 1996, at the 1996
Conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies at DePaul University in
Chicago. The presentation was part of a symposium that featured five SGI-USA
speakers under the theme, ”The Practice of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism in
Modern Society: The Soka Gakkai Approach to the Twenty-first Century.“ 

A CONCEPT that has caught the imaginations of many people in various disciplines
now is that of paradigms. Briefly defined, a paradigm is a world-view or a unifying,
overarching picture of reality governing an aspect of existence. In science, paradigms
are often considered to be universal laws, such as Newton’s laws of motion or the
Second Law of Thermodynamics. They are even referred to as theories, such as
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity or Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Through
Natural Selection, although they are generally accepted as the best descriptions of
phenomena within their purview at this time.

What determines whether a paradigm is accepted as a powerful, useful description
of reality? First, it must have explanatory power. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution
Through Natural Selection provides a plausible basis for the emergence of life’s
diversity from the laws of chemistry and physics. Second, it must have predictive
power. Newton’s laws of motion enable one to predict the locations of planets in the
distant future, to the advantage of astrophysicists and astrologers, alike. The history of
paradigms in science has been a progression toward greater explanatory and predictive
power, indicating a convergence with what can be considered to be absolute reality.
Science, by its own admission, however, can never achieve complete convergence with
absolute reality, since it utilizes inductive reasoning from individual cases to
generalities. The prevailing paradigm is tested by scientists using deductive reasoning
to predict the outcome of artificially created cases, or experiments, based on the
paradigm. Because the universe is infinite, all cases can never be examined and,
therefore, the paradigm cannot be proven with absolute certainty.

On the other hand, the systems of beliefs and practices central to a philosophy of
life, which can be considered religious paradigms, are not inferred from individual
cases, but instead are revealed and are, therefore, absolute. Viewed scientifically,
absolute paradigms only permit deductive reasoning. Since religious paradigms
generally govern life experiences, attitudes and conduct, testing them would lead one
to conclude that religions tend to be paradigms in crisis. The philosopher of science
Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm in crisis as one that has suffered too many failed
tests or anomalies that cannot be resolved without making implausible adjustments to
the paradigm. This, then, is the problem of engaged religion in a scientific age: Why
does religion appear to be incompatible with practical reason?

BOTH theological and secular scholars, such as the mythologist Joseph Campbell, have
argued that mythic elements in religions constitute a set of metaphors that instruct
the spiritual and cultural development of human beings, but an absolute paradigm
must include phenomenal, as well as spiritual, reality. I will argue that two Buddhist
concepts exemplify how religious philosophy can serve as an absolute paradigm
Buddhism community philosophy religion science society values governing both the
 objective and subjective aspects of life.

The Buddhist concept of the oneness of life and its environment refers to the belief
that all life and the environment in which it exists are inseparable, or simply two
aspects of the same entity. Furthermore, the environment reflects the life-conditions
of the people that inhabit it and the three poisons of greed, anger and stupidity
inherent in people’s lives manifest the calamities of famine, warfare and pestilence.
The most immediate evidence for the truth of this concept is that humans increasingly
exert a direct influence on the environment. For instance, preoccupation with profit
has led to such effects as deforestation, the greenhouse effect and erosion of the
atmospheric ozone layer, all of which threaten to affect climate and agricultural
production disastrously.

Our age has witnessed a proliferation of wars, both international and civil, in which
intense hatreds have spawned nearly inconceivably brutal atrocities; Cambodia,
Rwanda and Bosnia immediately come to mind, not to mention the enduring lessons
of World War II. AIDS has signaled the reemergence of epidemic infectious diseases
after a brief generation-long hiatus in the West. Stupidities such as failure of
governments and populations to teach and observe safe sex practices, unleashing of
deadly viruses by shortsighted environmental disruptions, disregard of continuing
epidemics in the Third World, and viewing the need to refine antibiotic development
as unprofitable have all led to pestilence.

The whole world is discovering a deeper basis for the view that life and its
environment are one, what Buddhism has long known as dependent origination, the
elaborate interconnectedness of everything, so that every action somehow perturbs the
larger web of life that radiates throughout the entire universe. An example often used
to support chaos theory is that a butterfly fluttering its wings over West Africa can
initiate a cascade of events ultimately producing a hurricane in the Western

At the very frontiers of modern science is the field of quantum physics, which offers
the startling realization that even an objective observation made with instruments is
conditioned by the observer. For instance, light will appear to be made up of waves or
particles, depending on what you use to observe it. Likewise, Buddhism teaches that
life will appear to be the inner reaches of the human mind or a barren mountain,
depending upon how you look at it. The oneness of life and environment is also
appreciated in the biological and behavioral sciences, since it has been learned that
animals, including humans, structure the environment they perceive to enhance their
ability to adapt to it. We sense only a small portion of the sound and light spectrums,
apparently because that best suited our survival in the environment in which humans
arose—the Pleistocene Epoch of two million years ago.

ULTIMATELY, this oneness of life and environment concept depends upon a second
Buddhist concept, that of the inseparability of body and mind. This concept is now
being actively elucidated by the emerging science of psychoneuroimmunology, which
has provided Depak Chopra with much of the basis for his system of mind-body
medicine. A deeper, more profound meaning of this term, however, is the oneness of
the spiritual and material aspects of life or the fundamental equality of the objective
and subjective realms. According to Buddhism, therefore, the subjective aspects of life
are dimensions just like the four objective dimensions of space-time. The three realms
expounded by the Chinese Buddhist sage Chih-i, or Chih-che, indicate that these
number six: form, perception, volition, cognition, consciousness and aggregates of
living beings, for a total of ten dimensions. Interestingly, the most recent attempts to
unify all phenomena in one principle, such as Superstring Theory, require ten
dimensions to make the mathematics come out right.

Here, religious philosophy can act as a true paradigm, leading and explaining
scientific inquiry. One of the most mind-boggling aspects of quantum physics derives
from the fact that light cannot behave as both a particle and a wave at the same time. If
light is shined through two slits in an opaque plate, it will project a wave pattern on a
screen behind it; but, if the experiment is rigged to provide information about which
slit each light particle, or photon, traveled through, the wave pattern will disappear.
One explanation for this finding would be that the photons somehow become
separated in another dimension that keeps them from interfering with each other to
produce the characteristic wave pattern. According to the Buddhist concepts of the
inseparability of body and mind and the three realms, these photons entered the
dimension of cognition when the observer became aware of their exact paths,
separating them and preventing their interference. Needless to say, this possibility
gives rise to exciting experimental prospects.

THE concept of religion as universal paradigm means that each person becomes a
scientist experimenting with his or her own life, over which he or she has total
control. Practice of such a religion would link a positive inner human reformation with
the healing and flourishing of the environment. The phenomenon of transforming the
land through an inner reformation of life is explained in a thesis by Nichiren titled
“On Securing the Peace of the Land through the Propagation of True Buddhism.” In
keeping with this spirit, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is dedicated to the
promotion of peace, culture and education throughout the world, based on the
influence of Nichiren’s teachings, both individually and collectively.

SCIENCE and technology, certainly, are central to the achievement of all three goals.
The devastation of two Japanese cities in 1945 by nuclear bombs developed by the
scientific enterprise known as the Manhattan Project is an enduring stain on the
integrity of science and all scientists. The second and third presidents of the Soka
Gakkai, Josei Toda and Daisaku Ikeda, tirelessly excoriated the maintenance of nuclear
arsenals by nations and repeatedly identified this as the major threat to our planet.
This threat remains even now in the post-Soviet age and has acquired an ominous cast
in light of national destabilizations and the steady increase of terrorist activities

Added to the nuclear legacy of misguided science are the dangers of chemical and
biological warfare. The former is being appreciated in the aftermath of the Gulf War
and the latter is particularly chilling when considering that students from all over the
world are learning the relatively cheap and accessible, but extremely powerful,
recombinant DNA technology in Western universities, while viral epidemic diseases of
unprecedented virulence are emerging in the Developing Nations. The potential
threats of these developments are compellingly described by Laurie Garrett in her
book, The Coming Plague. The familiar retreat of scientists into the guiltless and
guileless world of pure science that has permitted dark technological applications to
emerge should become a badge of shame in future years.

Science and the philosophy of modern rationalism that underlies it have had an
indescribably profound impact on the course of Western culture and now all cultures.
The deleterious impact of this development on the human psyche and cultural values
have been described by detractors ranging from Pascal and Rousseau to Nietzsche and
a host of contemporary commentators, including Anthony Burgess and Jeremy Rifkin.
Now, the rise of popularized participatory cybernetics known as the computer age and
the Internet is likely to make even more pervasive the two-dimensionality of the
television age that has contributed so much to the dehumanization of modern society.

The potential benefits of these technologies, however, are undeniable and can
greatly enhance the quality of life if efforts are made to emphasize the supremacy of
penetrating life-to-life dialogue among people of diverse backgrounds. The Soka
Gakkai has done much to promote such dialogue in its own activities and forums such
as this one.

SGI President Ikeda has stated unequivocally that education is the most important
endeavor of the present age. To this end, he has established the Soka school and
university system in Japan and the United States, which is based on the value-creating
educational philosophy of the Soka Gakkai’s first president, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi.
Science instruction especially can benefit from this approach. Youth today increasingly
shun science and mathematics, believing them to be cold, sterile and dehumanizing. In
fact, science, which often requires mathematics to be understood and practiced, is a
philosophy that was created by human beings for the benefit of other human beings. It
is an indispensable tool for teaching people how to think and function capably as
modern world citizens. Not least, it is interesting and a wonderful means for
expressing human creativity when taught properly. I look forward to the realization of
science’s pedagogical role in a humanistic educational setting.

On a personal note, I can say that, as a scientist who practices this Buddhism and as
a member of the SGI, I have become impressed with the importance of fortune in
science, which is so important to the discovery process. Conducting research science is
a good way to monitor the ability of a religion to generate good fortune, from the
behavior of temperamental instrumentation to the progress of the research process
and, most important, contribution to the well-being of people. I can attest that actual
proof can proceed from documentary and theoretical foundations in religion, as it does in science, provided the underlying paradigm is sound and robust.

Melvin Klegerman received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Loyola University of
Chicago in 1984. At the time of this presentation, he was associate director of the
Institute for Tuberculosis Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he
continues to serve as adjunct assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy. He is
now involved in starting a contract research organization, the Mid-Atlantic
Biomedical Research Laboratories, in the Washington, D.C. area. His current
activities focus on the development of anti-cancer drugs that stimulate the immune

 Science and Buddhism
Living Buddhism 03/01/1997 p.16


Mark Rogow said...

An actual proof challenge such as a Buddhist rain challenge, according to Nichiren Daishonin, is an excellent way to gauge the efficacy of Buddhist faiths and practices.

Mark Rogow said...

An actual proof challenge such as a Buddhist rain challenge, according to Nichiren Daishonin, is an excellent way to gauge the efficacy of Buddhist faiths and practices.

Denis Champagne said...

Good explanation