Science and Buddhism I: Universes Colliding

By Ratnaprabha

Cover image: Antennae galaxies colliding. NASA, ESA, SAO, CXC, JPL-Caltech, and STScI, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In a direct encounter between two massive spiral galaxies…, huge cold clouds of molecules will be compressed, and millions of new stars will burst into life like a string of Christmas lights. As the galaxies first swing by each other, their once orderly skies will become jumbled with dust, gas, and brilliant blue star clusters. Then the galaxies may do a slow, graceful U-turn and plunge into each other. This second encounter will trigger another burst of star formation, which will drive the remaining gas and dust from the combined system.[1]

Science and Buddhism can be seen as self-contained universes, apparently complete in themselves. Each is a very extensive, coherent worldview, worked out over many centuries. They are the greatest collective cultural achievements of the West and of Asia respectively. Now they are undergoing a historic encounter, and we are still in the early days of it.

In the 19th century, Westerners encountering Buddhism were very keen to present it as a rationalistic, even scientific approach[2]. But a genuine dialogue between Buddhism and science didn’t really start until the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life conferences and dialogues began. Their first topic in 1987 was Buddhism & the Cognitive Sciences[3].

From boyhood, the Dalai Lama has had a very open, inquiring and fascinated response to science. For example, he says that, if any Buddhist assertion is convincingly refuted by science, it should be abandoned, because freedom comes from knowing reality as it is. (However, though he’d be relaxed about the non-existence of Mt Meru, he might be less quick to abandon ‘suffering arises in dependence on craving’, say, if a study appeared to contradict it.) And generally, scientists rather like Buddhism. 

Buddhists are fascinated by the torrent of human experience, and what it all means. Their main priority is to expand the scope of awareness. They are not encumbered by the rather strange doctrines one encounters in ‘Religion’. (The only exception to this is perhaps rebirth.) Both are concerned with the truth, and are prepared to take it on board, even if it threatens one’s cherished preconceptions. This is the ideal, and of course practising scientists and practising Buddhists both vary a lot.

The project and attitude of science

The project: making systematic records of what is going on, accumulating factual knowledge, but also finding out what the connections are between all the things going on, and between what came before and what comes after — in other words, looking for laws of nature. Once science has found out how things connect with each other and affect each other, it tries putting them together in new ways. Sometimes this is just to see what happens — scientific experiments.  Sometimes it is to make things happen in new ways, things that people want to happen — that is technology. 

The attitude: reality as objective, implying the use of experimental method. Thus science takes that part of human experience which seems to be outside oneself very seriously, and takes it as primary.

The project and attitude of Buddhism

The project: a path of growing insight and compassion — ethics, meditation, wisdom — each with insight and compassion aspects. Eradicating human suffering.

The attitude: the possibility and the desirability of complete awareness — being fully present in awareness of reality (insight) and of people (compassion).  This attitude means that it takes consciousness very seriously, and as primary.

Where Buddhists and scientists agree

  • Curiosity-driven.
  • Interest in knowledge/truth/reality. 
  • Discovering universal laws. 
  • Problem-solving.
  • Reality as process.
  • The recalcitrance of the external world, which challenges ego clinging.
  • To change the results, you need to change the conditions.
  • Vast space and time.  There are probably many inhabited places at inconceivable distances from each other, yet the same patterns can be discovered everywhere in the universe. 
  • No creation, and no end of the world.
  • Relativity.
  • The plenum void: seeing that the void teams with potential, and with coming into being. 
  • Linear time not intrinsic.
  • No self: seeing that the ‘self’ is a convenient fiction — there are just mental processes, which require no ego.
  • Animals are basically like us, and their drives can be found driving us from deep within.
  • Recognition of the barrier of subjectivity.  Seeing that perception is prey to illusion and delusion, and other methods are needed than the conditioned senses to discern what is really going on. 
  • The creation of a cooperating community (the peer-group of scientists, or the Sangha) able to achieve more than any individual can.

One-sidedness in Buddhism and science?

Buddhists have neglected the material, and this has influenced the countries where Buddhism has been active. For example, Joseph Needham claims that Buddhism seriously inhibited the growth of science in China, though I am not convinced by his arguments[4]. Sometimes, this is for the better. If there is less expectation that ‘things’ can yield happiness, more happiness results. But two things have been lost:

  • potentials from technology to reduce hardships
  • potentials for understanding the objective pole of experience more fully — and therefore ourselves and others

Science has neglected immediate experience, which is not trusted because it is so personal, and because it is so hard to come up with standardised results. Also, the disciplines of introspection and mental cultivation take a long time, so that William James and early psychologists while initially keen, gave up on it.  The current fashion is to call introspection and even meditation itself ‘contemplative science’[5].

[1] From the Hubble telescope website. See

[2] For the history of this encounter, see Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed by Donald S Lopez Jr (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 2008), and my review in the Western Buddhist Review.


[4] Joseph Needham, The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China, Volume I (Cambridge University Press, 1978), pages 264, 265, 272.  But an essay by Jose Ignacio Cabezon indicates that the conditioning factors were far more complex, and that when Western science did arrive in Asia, it was treated by Buddhists in an open and welcoming way, in contrast to the responses to science of many European churchmen. (In Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground, B. Alan Wallace (editor), Columbia University Press, New York, 2003.)

[5] See the works of B Alan Wallace.

English (UK)