Mirror of Zen Blog

Buddhism is Scientific

I always emphasize that Buddhism is not a religion, but actually science. Sometimes people don’t get this, or resist this possibility: they want to believe in the easy “world religions” packaging that gives everything a kind of homogenized equal value, their truth claims all equally substantiated by some shared status “religion”. Yet it is clearly not so!

So it is in this vein that I always appreciate when seeing the insights of leading scientists match the insights of the Buddha. One such person is the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard P. Feyman (1918-88), one of the greatest scientific minds of the twentieth century, a participant in the Manhattan Project, the one who conceived of nanotechnology and innumerable equations, theorems, and formulations in quantum mechanics.

Even in his youth, he was recognized to have one of the greatest minds anyone had ever seen — anywhere: The author James Gleick once wrote: “…Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers: At twenty-three … there may now have been no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics (though it had become clear … that the mathematical machinery emerging in the Wheeler–Feynman collaboration was beyond Wheeler’s own ability). Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau —but few others.”

Elsewhere, Feynman said: “Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, ‘Is it reasonable?'”

How perfectly fit this is to the view of the Buddha himself, who said, in his Kesamutti Sutta (Kālāma Sutra), to relay on observation, reason and inquiry, and never blind faith:

“The Buddha proceeds to list the criteria by which any sensible person can decide which teachings to accept as true. Do not blindly believe religious teachings, he tells the Kalamas, just because they are claimed to be true, or even through the application of various methods or techniques. Direct knowledge grounded in one’s own experience can be called upon. He advises that the words of the wise should be heeded and taken into account. He proposes not a passive acceptance but, rather, constant questioning and personal testing to identify those truths which verifiably reduce one’s own stress or misery (Pali: dukkah). 

The Kesamutti Sutta states (Pali expression in parentheses):

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing (anussava),

nor upon tradition (paramparā),

nor upon rumor (itikirā),

nor upon what is in a scripture (piṭaka-sampadāna)

nor upon surmise (takka-hetu),

nor upon an axiom (naya-hetu),

nor upon specious reasoning (ākāra-parivitakka),

nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā),

nor upon another’s seeming ability (bhabba-rūpatāya),

nor upon the consideration, The monk is our teacher (samaṇo no garū)

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.'”


Feyman once said, “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.” In this view, it is not possible ever to call Buddhism a religion, however much it may sometimes present religion-like rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and all the other dressings, marks, appearances, and even mistaken cultural accretions that human beings build onto things to make them more graspable and usable by the masses and the priestly classes that might wish to have a helpful tool to lord over them through it.

“We need to teach how doubt is not to be feared, but welcomed,” Feynman once said. “It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.'”

Or as the scientist Feynman put it again, “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything. There are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask “Why are we here?” I might think about it a little bit, and if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose – which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell.”

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama claims that “Buddhism is not a religion, it is a science of mind,” he is speaking more as the Richard Feynman of spirituality, a believer in rigorous observation and testing of assumptions and faith, not as the leader of an unquestionable belief-system.

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