Scientific method originated in early Buddhism


Shelton Gunaratne (SG), an emeritus Professor of communication at Moorhead, Minnesota, USA has written (28th May, Island) that both Prof. Carlo Fonseka (CF), and Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana (UW) are wrong in viewing Buddhism as "scientific" in spirit. SG says that "Contrary to Upul W’s view, Buddhism is not a science but a phenomenology, a method that enables one to use his/her mind to test the truth of the Four Noble Truths and the three characteristics of cyclic existence through mindful concentration. Thus Buddhism shuns false objectivity and as in Kalama Suttta, often cited by Carlo F, calls on everyone to test the veracity of Buddhist teachings through personal experience. Why science fails to see the embodiment of mind seems to stem from its denigration of Oriental philosophies".

As a science teacher and a popular-science writer, this is an opportunity to discuss the scientific method, and belief systems, also as posted in some of my internet blogs (see for example,  ).

 SG and many other writers claim that eastern thought is "cyclic", while scientific thinking "is linear" and Cartesian. SG also claims that Science "denigrates Oriental philosophies", when in reality, science is an off-shoot of some of the basic teachings of the Buddha. SG uses "quantum physics" to claim that Buddhism is indeed like modern science, after having denied such links.

The Kalaama Sutta is not the only place where the Buddha has advised the populace to follow an approach based on personal experience, rather than on tradition and authority of "sacred texts". Bhikku Bodhi, translator of many Pali texts, says that the Kalama sutta should be taken in the context of other Buddhist texts as well. Whether it be the "Ummmagga Jathaaka", the "Dhadabba Jatahaka", the "Chulla-Haththi-padopama sutta", "Brahmajaala Sutta", etc., the Buddha emphasizes the evidence-based rational approach. In one episode the Buddha says that if "you wish to determine if a metal is a base metal (like lead), or a noble metal (like Gold), you should not just ask others, but TEST the piece of metal in question on a touch stone! This is surely the very FIRST clearest expression of the experimental method, stated some three centuries BEFORE Archimedes.

The 5th to 6 th centuries BCE in India were a time of free intellectual ferment. Many scholars have noted how Greek science began closely after Buddha's India. The Buddha preached his first sermon in Benares, at the cross-roads of the Silk Route and the North-South route of the ancient world. His enlightened and rational message was brought to Greece via the Silk Route. An open society without an authoritarian priesthood flourished in Greece. Is it a coincidence that Heraclitus also preached that everything is subject to incessant change? Thales called for natural explanations, rejecting mythology, just as in the Brahmajala Sutta. The most famous Greek thinker Socrates came a century after the Buddha. He believed in a logical approach to everything, while believing in "rebirth" and "Karma" as embodied in Orphism. His pupils, Plato and Aristotle pushed the rational approach towards mathematics. The perfect form in geometry was the sphere, and they believed that everything happened cyclically. Ptolemy, the famous Greek astronomer explained the motion of astral bodies with cycles and epicycles. To claim that western thought is linear, while Eastern thought is cyclic", is to falsify history. Indian ideas about cyclic processes probably came to Greece along the Silk route, while the Greeks gave a geometric justification. This tradition of the scientific method of the Buddha, via Thales, Socrates, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Ptolemy and others produced "Western science". Today, when studying mechanics, laws of floating bodies etc., we mention Archimedes and other Greeks. The collapse of the classical civilizations and the rise of obscurantist and mystic belief systems, culminating in the sacking of Rome by the "barbarians" followed by the stranglehold of the church trampled the rise of science till the renaissance. Here we must ask why the scientific method, originating in North India did not flourish there. The growth of science in India failed for two reasons; one of them banished Buddhism from India. The other was the Brahmin tradition of "Guru-Mushti" or ownership of knowledge by the family of the Guru. New knowledge was not shared and discussed, unlike in the schools of Plato and Aristotle. Knowledge was secret, and passed from teacher to trusted pupil who married the teachers daughter! There was no room for innovation, critical improvement etc. In the West, during the renaissance, open discussion and public presentations were revived by newly formed "learned societies. The "Royal society" of Hooke, Newton and others had their counterparts in other European capitals. These learned societies insisted that every "discovery" was publicly authenticated at a "Royal society meeting" for all to see (the "Ehipassiko" principle). Inventions were protected by Royal Charter (patents), minimizing the need for trade secrets. The renaissance had to struggle against the dogmatic Christian Church, although today churchmen take credit claiming that most scientists were Christians. Indeed, born and raised in that society, it was natural, especially when heretics were burnt alive. A similar development could not happen in India, as the Brahmins controlled knowledge and society through a virulent caste system.

Those who, like SG, think that the Buddha did not herald the scientific method fail to appreciate the fullness of the Thathaagatha's teaching. The Buddha taught that a hungry person cannot listen to "Bana" (sermons). He did NOT neglect material well being. But he realized that contentment cannot come ONLY with material well being, while the latter is a mandatory necessity. His most important and urgent mission was to save the world from suffering. The parable of the arrow says that saving the person pierced by an arrow has priority over asking questions about who shot the arrow etc. However, this does NOT mean that "Ehipassiko", or the exhortations to the Kaalaama apply only in the moral sphere. All the Buddhist discourses point to its strongly positivist, empiricist approach, as emphasized by Prof. K. N. Jayatillke in his books.

Many popular writers make a mystery of quantum physics and relativity, claiming that they are "weird", or counter-intuitive. However, Quantum Physics can be recast in a completely Newtonian framework as shown by Professor David Bohm in 1952, while working with Einstein. This "common-sense" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is rarely mentioned by journalists as they prefer to shock the reader with "weird" interpretations using the so-called "Copenhagen Interpretation". Prof. SG claims that Quantum Physics supports his views about Buddhism! Really? Quantum Physics applies to the subatomic world, and seamlessly reduces to old-fashioned physics at the human scale of things. Quantum Physics denies that a definite effect follows a definite cause. All we have are statistical laws of "quantum" chance. But Buddhism firmly asserts a fully causal "Karmic" moral law, and a "dependent origination". These apply at the macroscopic level, and not at the quantum level where there is no causality what so ever. Einstein was unhappy about this, and said that "God does not play dice". But God (i.e., nature for Einstein) does play dice, and Einstein was completely wrong on this.

Prof. SG should look up the "Bohmian Interpretation of the Quantum theory" on the internet, or in a suitable text. Simply put, there are many interpretations of Quantum Physics, and it is useless to claim that Buddhism, or Christianity, or some "spiritual system" is supported by the new physics which has "many interpretations". When Einstein spoke of a "cosmic religion" akin to Buddhism, he was referring to the non-dogmatic ("Kalama concepts") and rational nature of Buddhism. It is precisely this that Prof. SG denies. Dr. CF and Dr. UW are in unison with Einstein on this. The scientific method is just one aspect of the Buddha's teaching, as applied to the physical world.

Bodhi Dhanapala,

Quebec, Canada

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