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Verses and Stories
Dhammapada Verse 165 .
Purity, Impurity Self-Created
Verse 165. Purity, Impurity Self-Created
By oneself is evil done,
by oneself defiled,
by oneself it’s left undone,
by self alone one purified.
Purity, impurity on oneself depend,
no one can purify another.
It is by one’s own self that evil is
done. It is one’s own actions that defiles a person. If a person does not
commit evil action, one is purified. A person is cleansed entirely by one’s own
self. One cannot purify another. Purity and impurity both depend on one’s own
A STUDY OF THE TWELVE °YATANAS AND THEIR PARALLELS IN HUMAN ANATOMY AS UNDERSTOOD BY MODERN SCIENCE
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of The Requirement
for the Degree of Master of Arts (Buddhist
Master Degree Programme
School, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, has approved
this thesis as a part of education according to its curriculum of the Master of
Arts in Buddhist Studies.
Dean of Graduate
Dr. Chamlong Disayavanish)
Dr. Somparn Promtha)
Dr. Chamlong Disayavanish Member
Title: °yatana: A Study of the Twelve °yatanas and Their Parallels
in Human Anatomy as Understood by Modern
Ms. Apiramon Damrongsiri
Master of Arts (Buddhist Studies)
Rajsitthimuni, PÀli IX, M.A.
Suthithammanuwat, PÀli IX, M.A., Ph.D.
Prof. Dr. Chamlong Disayavanish, M.S., M.D.
Graduation: 4 January 2008
thesis is a study of the twelve Àyatanas and their parallels in science.
With an attempt to answer a hypotheses that many parallels exist between
statements in the Buddhist scriptures and findings from scientific research.
The information of the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist scriptures are
brought to compare with the information of the sensory receptors and the sense
stimuli in human anatomy.
thesis, the various meanings of the term Àyatana is analyzed in both the Vedic-Sanskrit
and the PÀli traditions. Then the specific meaning of the twelve
Àyatanas in the TipiÇaka and AÇÇhakathÀs is clarified. The
and the sense stimuli in human anatomy are studied and then compared
and contrasted with the description of the twelve Àyatanas.
of the study shows that the meaning of the term Àyatana in the PÀli
tradition had been developed from the Vedic-Sanskrit tradition. The concept of
the twelve Àyatanas was invented by the Buddha and developed by the
commentators. The study also answers the hypotheses that there are some
resemblances in the material aspect between the description of the twelve Àyatanas
in the Buddhist scriptures and their parallels in science.
the role of the mental aspect, the mind, is different. The role of the mental
aspect is still ambiguous in science. Therefore, it could not be brought to compare
with the information in the Buddhist scriptures. This is where science
lags behind Buddhism.
would not have been completed without kindness assistance from
many people. I would like to acknowledge and extend my
gratitude to the following persons who have made the completion of this thesis
I am very much
indebted to Phra Kru Kasemthammathat, the abbot of Maheyong
temple, for his advice in meditation as my first meditation master. He also
introduced the importance and the concept of the twelve Àyatanas to me.
I would like to
convey my sincere gratitude to Phra Rajsitthimuni, Phra
Suthithammanuwat, Emeritus Prof. Dr. Chamlong Disayavanish, Phra Sujan Sujano,
Ms. Rampee Kulsomboon who carefully read my drafts and gave advice on
the contents and the writing.
thank Mr. Vinai Ussivakul, my Abhidhamma teacher, who introduced me to
the concept of the fivefold consequent processes. I am extremely
grateful to Prof. Dr. David Tin Win, Dr. Peter Masefield and Adjunct. Prof.
Stephen Evans for their valuable advice.
I would like to
take this opportunity to acknowledge the kindness assistance from
Miss Sasiwan Kamlangsinserm for supplying me with necessary books.
I would like to
extend my thanks to my brother in law, Mr. Paul M. Day, for his
I would like to express my appreciation to my family,
teachers, and friends, who made all things possible, of their vital
and support. Finally, I would like to apologize for not mentioning
names of all those who helped in numerous ways.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter I: Introduction 1
Background and Significance of the Problem 1
Objectives of the Research 3
Statements of the Problems 4
Hypotheses of the Research 4
Definitions of the Terms Used in the Research 4
Literature Review 5
of Study 10
Limitations of the Research 11
Chapter II: °yatana 12
Concept of the Term°yatana in Sanskrit 12
Spatial Concept 14
Possessive Concept 15
Religious Concept 15
Anatomical Concept 15
Causality Concept 15
Concept of the Term°yatana in PÀli 18
Definitions of the Different Enumerations of °yatana 18
Group of Two 19
Group of Five 22
Group of Six 23
Group of Seven 25
Group of Nine 27
Group of Ten 28
Group of Eleven 29
Group of Twelve 30
Twelve °yatanas and Their Meaning 31
Twelve °yatanas in Their Metaphorical Senses 33
Twelve °yatanas in the Similitude of Burning 34
Twelve °yatanas in the Similitude of a
Village and Village-Raiding Robbers
Twelve °yatanas in the Similitude of the
and the Far Shore
Twelve °yatanas in the Similitude of Six
Creatures and Their Resorts
Significance of the Twelve °yatanas in the TipiÇaka 37
Twelve °yatanas Link between Human and
Fifty-Two Methods How the Twelve
°yatanas Link between Human and the
Types of Relations How the Twelve
°yatanas Link between Human and the
Twelve °yatanas Allow Human to
Twelve °yatanas Are the Place Where
Twelve °yatanas Lead Human’s Life to
Twelve °yatanas Are Dukkha 61
Roles of the Twelve °yatanas in Attaining NibbÀna 64
Restraining of the Twelve °yatanas 65
Development of the SamÀdhi and the Twelve
Twelve °yatanas and the Practice of the
of the Chapter 79
Chapter III: The Twelve °yatanas in
the Buddhist Scriptures and
Their Parallels in Human Anatomy
Twelve °yatanas in the Buddhist Scriptures 84
Internal °yatanas and Their Description in
External °yatanas and Their Description in
Conditions for the Arising of the Thought-
the Twelve °yatanas
Twelve °yatanas and the Fivefold
The Primary Elements of the
Sensory Receptors and the Sense Stimuli in Human
Sensory Receptors 142
Sense Stimuli 167
Visual Stimulus 167
Auditory Stimulus 170
Olfactory Stimulus 171
Gustatory Stimulus 173
Bodily Stimuli 174
Mental Stimuli 175
Prerequisites for the Arising of the Sensation 179
Sensory Receptors and the Fivefold Processes
Particulate Models of Matter: Basic Models for
of the Chapter 187
Chapter IV: The Comparison between the
Twelve °yatanas and
Their Parallels in Human Anatomy
Comparison between the AjjhattikÀyatanas and the
and the Eye 190
and the Ear 194
and the Nose 194
and the Tongue 197
and the Body 198
and the Mind 199
Comparison between the BÀhirÀyatanas and the
and Visual Stimulus 209
and Auditory Stimulus 212
and Olfactory Stimulus 214
and Gustatory Stimulus 216
and Bodily Stimuli 218
and Mental Stimuli 220
Comparison between the Conditions for the Arising
Thought Process in Buddhism and the
for the Arising of the Sensation in Modern
Comparison between the Fivefold Consequent
Buddhism and the Fivefold Processes of
in Modern Science
Reviewing the MahÀbhÂtarÂpa through the Particulate
of the Chapter 244
Chapter V: Conclusion and Suggestion 249
of the Study 249
of the Study 253
Suggestions for Further Research 254
Appendix: The PaÇiccasamuppÀda and the Twelve °yatanas 266
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1 The
Term °yatana as Appeared in Sanskrit and PÀli
Figure 2 The
Twelve °yatanas Connect Human Beings and the
Fifty-Two Methods of Expounding the CakkhÀyatana 40
Figure 4 The
Relationship between Objects and Citta by Way
Figure 5 °rammaõÀdhipati-Paccaya
and Its Example 48
Figure 6 °rammaõÂpanissaya-Paccaya
and Its Example 49
Figure 7 The
Twelve °yatanas Are Related to ViððÀõadhÀtu
Associated States by PurejÀta-Paccaya
Figure 8 The
Example of the Relationship between RÂpÀyatana
by Way of PurejÀta-Paccaya in the
Figure 9 The
Series of Mental Phenomena of the Process of
The Different Classifications of SaÚyojana 57
Figure 11 OrambhÀgiya-SaÚyojana
and Its Details 58
Figure 12 UddhambhÀgiya-SaÚyojana
and Its Details 60
The Relationship between the Twelve °yatanas and
Three Kinds of Dukkha 63
The Teaching of the Buddha on the Six Bases for
The Teaching of the Buddha on the Objects of the
The Teaching of the Buddha on the Objects of the
The SamÀdhi Sutta 73
The Characteristic of the Four Foundations of
and Their Progressive Pattern
Figure 20 °yatanapabba
The Twelve °yatanas and Their Classifications 85
The Classifications of Cakkhu and CakkhÀyatana 87
Figure 23 CakkhÀyatana
and Its Description 89-90
Figure 24 CakkhuppasÀda
and Its Description 91
Figure 25 SotÀyatana
and Its Description 94
Figure 26 SotappasÀda
and Its Description 95
Figure 27 GhÀnÀyatana
and Its Description 97
Figure 28 GhÀnappasÀda
and Its Description 98
Figure 29 JivhÀyatana
and Its Description 100
Figure 30 JjivhÀppasÀda
and Its Description 101
Figure 31 KÀyÀyatana
and Its Description 103
Figure 32 KÀyappasÀda
and Its Description 104
The Classification of Citta 106
Figure 34 ManÀyatana
and Its Different Enumerations 107-108
Figure 35 HadayarÂpa
and Its Description 110
Images of Loofah Gourd, PunnÀga Seed, and KaõikÀra
Figure 37 ManÀyatana
and the Different Types of Citta 114
Figure 38 RÂpÀyatana
and Its Description 117-118
Figure 39 SaddÀyatana
and Its Description 120
Figure 40 GandhÀyatana
and Its Description 122
Figure 41 RasÀyatana
and Its Description 125
Figure 42 PhoÇÇhabbÀyatana
and Its Description 127
Figure 43 DhammÀyatana
and Its Description 129
Figure 44 DhammÀyatana
and Its Detailed Classification 130
The Anatomy of the Human Eye 143
Figure 46 The
Different Classifications of the Retinal Layers 145
The Retina and the Visual Pathway 148
The Anatomy of the Ear 149
The Organ of Corti and the Hearing Pathway 151
The Anatomy of the Nose and the Olfactory Pathway 152
The Anatomy of the Human Tongue and the
The Nervous System Diagram 156
The Sense Organ of Touch and the Tangible Pathway 157
The Detailed Map of Somatosensory Cortex 158
The Brain Map Corresponding to the Touch from the
The Brain Organization 161
The Anatomy of the Physical Heart 163
The Relationship between the Brainwave and
Signals through the Electricity of Touch
Heart Rhythmic Patterns of a Boy and His Dog 166
Electromagnetic Spectrum and Its Different Wavelengths
Electromagnetic Spectrum and the Reflection of Color 169
The Relationship between Sound and Gaps 171
The Relationship between Odor and Odorant
Flavor Molecules under a Microscope 173
The Brain Stimulus and Its Pathway 176
The Examples of the Process of Sensory Transduction
Auditory, and Olfactory Senses
The Three Basic Parts of an Atom 183
The Forces of Attraction and Repulsion 184
Symbols and Definition for the Particulate Models of
The Particulate Models of Matter 186
The Twelve °yatanas and Their Possible Parallel
Figure 72 CakkhÀyatana
and the Anatomy of the Human Eye 193
Figure 73 SotÀyatana
and the Anatomy of the Ear 195
Figure 74 GhÀnÀyatana
and the Anatomy of the Nose 196
Figure 75 JivhÀyatana
and the Anatomy of the Tongue 198
Figure 76 KÀyÀyatana
and the Anatomy of the Body 200
Figure 77 Hadayavatthu
and the Anatomy of the Heart 203
The Comparison between the Process of Recognition
and the Process of Perception in
Inverted Image on the Retina 234
Figure 80 An
Example of the Process of Recognition of the
Reviewing the MahÀbhÂtarÂpa through the Particulate
The Relationship between the Sense of Touch and the
The PaÇiccasamuppÀda 267
Examples of How to Build up the Mindfulness in the
Cycle of the
LIST OF TABLES
Table 1 The
Different Usages of the Term °yatana 19
Table 2 The
Two Kinds of °yatana 22
Table 3 The
Five Kinds of °yatana 24
Table 4 The
Six Kinds of °yatana 26
Table 5 The
Seven Kinds of °yatana 26
Table 6 The
Nine Kinds of °yatana 27
Table 7 The
Ten Kinds of °yatana 29
Table 8 The
Eleven Kinds of °yatana 30
Table 9 The
Phenomena of the Twelve °yatanas and Their
Table 10 The
Sense Bases and Various Meanings of the Term
Table 11 The
Six Internal °yatanas in the Similitude of the Six
Table 12 The
Comparison between Vatthu and AjjhattikÀyatanÀni 53
Table 13 The
Comparison between °rammaõa and BÀhirÀyatanÀni 53
Table 14 The
Relationship between the Twelve °yatanas and the
Subjects of SamÀdhi
Table 15 The
Ten SaÚyojanas 80
Table 16 The
Ten SaÚyojanas and a Way of Practice in the Suttanta
Synonyms for the Term CakkhÀyatana 92
Table 18 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the CakkhÀyatana 93
Table 19 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the SotÀyatana 96
Table 20 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the GhÀnÀyatana 99
Table 21 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the JivhÀyatana 101
Table 22 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the KÀyÀyatana 104
Synonyms for the TermManÀyatana 112
Table 24 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of theManÀyatana 115
Table 25 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the RÂpÀyatana 119
Table 26 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the SaddÀyatana 121
Table 27 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the GandhÀyatana 123
Table 28 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the RasÀyatana 126
Table 29 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the PhoÇÇhabbÀyatana 128
Table 30 The
LakkhaõÀdicatuka of the DhammÀyatana 131-133
Table 31 Six
Classes of VÁthi 134
Table 32 The
Arising of TadanuvattikÀ ManodvÀravÁthi after CakkhudvÀravÁthi
Table 33 The
Arising of TadanuvattikÀ ManodvÀravÁthi after SotadvÀravÁthi
Table 34 The
Information of theMahÀbhÂtarÂpa 141
Table 35 The
Ten Distinct Layers of the Human Retina 146
Table 36 The
Prerequisites for the Arising of the Sensation 180
Characteristics of Various States of Matter 184
Table 38 The
Ten Layers of Human Retina and Their Role in
Table 39 The
Comparison of the Sense Object of the Eye between
RÂpÀyatana in the Buddhist Scriptures and Visual
Table 40 The
Comparison of the Sense Object of the Ear between
SaddÀyatana in the Buddhist Scriptures and Auditory
Table 41 The
Comparison of the Sense Object of the Nose between
in the Buddhist Scriptures and Olfactory
Table 42 The
Comparison of the Sense Object of the Tongue
in the Buddhist Scriptures and
Stimulus in Modern Science
Table 43 The
Comparison of the Sense Objects of the Body
in the Buddhist Scriptures and
Stimuli in Modern Science
Table 44 DhammÀyatana
in the Buddhist Scriptures and Equivalent
in Modern Science
Table 45 The
Comparison between the Conditions for the Arising
Thought Process in Buddhism and Perception in
Table 46 The
Parallels Between the Process of Visual Perception in
the Process of Visual Recognition in
Table 47 The
Prominent Characteristic of Primary Elements in
Each Type of
Energy Forces in the Particles
Table 48 The
Correlation between the Internal °yatanas and the
Table 49 The
Correlation between the External °yatanas and the
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
I. Texts (Original Sources)
II. Abbreviated Books Mentioned in the
Critical PÀli Dictionary
Dictionary of Buddhism
Page 21 of
Dictionary of Psychology
Dictionary of PÀli
Dictionary of the Pali Language
Pali-Anthologie und Wörterbuch
Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary
Index of Names and Subjects
III. Other Abbreviations
gratia, for example
editor, edited by
et al. et
alii, and others
cetera, and so forth
the following page(s)
in the same book
est; that is to say
loc cit. loco
citato, in the place cited
date, date is not indicated
publisher, publisher is not identified
op. cit. opera
citato, in the work cited
vide, which see (= look in another place to find
verbo, sub voce, under the word(s)
Note on the Usage of the Abbreviations
referencing PÀli sources, the references are given according to the name
of the book, the
indicated by a Roman number), and the page number of the PTS edition. Except
for the Dhammapada,
where the verse number is given instead of the page number, e.g.
A III 43:
the Aôguttara NikÀya Volume III, page 43.
Dhp 1: the Dhammapada
1.1 Background and Significance of the
intends to study and analyze the concept of the Àyatana with an emphasis
on the twelve Àyatanas in the context of science. The theoretical
framework behind the study is that there are some resemblances between
the statements in the Buddhist scriptures and the discovery in modern
science. This idea is supported by many Buddhist scholars, such as
Leidecker who mentions that “the remarkable fact is that if reduced to general
principles, many statements in the Buddhist scriptures can be brought in line
with modern scientific theories and hypotheses.”
1 With the
advent of scientific revolution, spirituality has gradually declined.
scientists refer to religions as “a mystic experience, a psychic thrill.”
3 There exists
an increasing gap between the world of religion and the world of science. Many
religions are based on blind faith. However,
rejects blind faith by allowing each individual to observe and experiment the
Buddha’s teaching by oneself. This can be seen from the
1Kurt F. Leidecker, introduction to Buddhism and Science, ed. Buddhadasa P. Kirthisinghe (Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993), p. IX.
2See details in William Macquitty, Buddha (New York: The Viking Press, 1969), pp. 123-125.
3Robert F. Spencer, “The Relation of Buddhism to Modern Science,” in Buddhism and Science, ed. Buddhadasa
P. Kirthisinghe (Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993), p. 17.
the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta.
4 The method
in Buddhism is quite similar to the method in science. So many people believe
that Buddhism can survive the threat of the scientific advancement.
5 This idea is
supported by a well-known scientist, Albert Einstein, who says that “If there is
any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”
many scholars believe that some teachings of the
Buddha are now
supported by scientific methods.
7 In order to
bridge the gap existing between the two worlds of
and science, research is needed. Therefore, I select to study the
and their parallel information in modern science, because of
importance as channels that allows human beings to gain information
8 In the field
of science, the twelve Àyatanas may be identified as
receptors and sense stimuli. They are extensively studied in many
as in the areas of psychology, philosophy and physiology.
9 These studies
are based on repeated observations and experiments under the control
physical organs and scientific instruments.
10 The role of
the mind is still ambiguous in science. This is where science may lag behind
4A I 188ff.
5See details in P.A. Payutto, Thai
Buddhism in the Buddhist World, 10th ed.
Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, 2005), pp. 189-193.
6Ibid., p. 194.
7Garry Thomson, The Sceptical
Buddhist (Thailand: Amarin Printing, 2000), p.
8See details in P.A. Payutto, Buddhadhamma
(Thai Edition), 11th rev. and enl. ed.
Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, B.E. 2546), pp. 34-39.
9Andrew M. Colman, ed., Companion
Encyclopedia of Psychology, vol. 1, 1st ed.
New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 153.
10See details in Phra Thepsophon, A
Buddhist Worldview (Bangkok:
University, 2003), pp. 12-20.
the twelve Àyatanas play an important role in thewheel of rebirth. They
are one of the twelve elements in the PaÇiccasamuppÀda, a teaching of
the Buddha that reveals a conditional phenomena leading to the cycle of
addition, the twelve Àyatanas play an important role in the practice of satipaÇÇhÀna.
This practice is believed by proponents of TheravÀda Buddhism to be a
way of purifying the mind which in turn leads to the realization of nibbÀna.
12 The present
thesis proposes an exploration of the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist
literature together with scientific explanation. In order to provide a concrete
background for the research, I will first examine the term Àyatana and
its various meanings thoroughly. Second, the information of the twelve Àyatanas
in the TipiÇaka and its Commentaries will be analyzed. Last, the comparison
of information related to the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist scriptures
and human anatomy in science will be explored.
1.2.1To study the concept of the term Àyatana in Sanskrit and PÀli
1.2.2To study the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist scriptures and the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli
in modern science.
1.2.3To identify the correlation between the twelve Àyatanas of the Buddhist
scriptures and sensory receptors and sense stimuli of science.
11M III 63f.
12D II 290ff.
1.3 Statements of Problems
In order to
meet the objectives of the research, the following statements of the problems
are needed to be answered:
1.3.1What is the definition of the term Àyatana in general and in particular?
What is the meaning of this term in Sanskrit and PÀli?
1.3.2What is the exposition of the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist scriptures?
What are the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli in modern science?
1.3.3Are there any similarities or differences between the information of the
twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist literature and the information of the
sensory receptors and the sense stimuli in science?
1.4 Hypotheses of the Research Many parallels exist between statements on the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist scriptures and findings
from scientific research on the sensory
receptors and the sense stimuli in the area of human anatomy and physiology.
1.5 Definition of the Terms Used in the
refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on setting up hypotheses and
doing experiments. Modern science consists of many fields. However, the scope
of this study centers on the explanation of the senses, including sensory
receptors, sense stimuli, and human sense anatomy.
refers to the state of being comparable between two things. In this case, they
are the statements in the Buddhist scriptures and in science. Similarity is
indicated, but identity is not implied. Sense
Receptors / Sensory Receptors:
receptors are also known as sense organs.13 In biology, a sense receptor refers
to “a specialized cell or group of cells that translates a certain type of
stimulus, received from the environment or from within the organism, into nerve
simply, a sensory receptor is a structure that recognizes a stimulus.
Therefore, the sensory receptors in this thesis cover the human eye, ear, nose,
tongue, and body. The status of the mind is unclear.
stimulus is that which activates a sensory receptor,15 for
electromagnetic wave activates sense receptors in the retina. Each
corresponds to a specific type of the sense stimuli.
1.6 Literature Review
1.6.1C.L.A. De Silva, A Treatise on Buddhist Philosophy of Abhidhamma,
first published in 1937, is based on the Abhidhammattha Saôgaha written
by Anuruddha. The intention of the writer in writing this
13DP, s.v. “sense
14The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., Micropædia, s.v. “receptor.”
book is to
correct the misinterpretation in the publications of the Pali Text Society
(PTS) edited by Mrs. Rhys Davids, who criticizes Buddhism from Christianity
point of view. Silva extensively explores the information of cittas and cetasikas
in depth. In addition, he focuses his interest on the doorways of the
organs, objects, and six bases. At the end of the book, he also criticizes the
regarding the heart-base as whether it is located in the heart or in the brain
with the conclusion that the heart-base is a material quality derived from the
four great essentials (mahÀbhÂtarÂpa) and originated from kamma.
1.6.2Jan Gonda, “°yatana,” Sanskrit Word Studies, Vol. II of Selected
by Jan Gonda is an analytical study of the term Àyatana and its related
terms in Sanskrit language. The writer investigates the term in many
aspects, including its etymology. Gonda’s shows some development of the
term Àyatana in the pre-Buddhist tradition as well as in the Buddhist
tradition. The study also shows the usage of this term in the Buddhist literature
both in technical and metaphorical senses. Jan Gonda concludes the study
with a very interesting point that the usage of the term Àyatana in Buddhism
is influenced by Vedic tradition; however, the Buddha also develops
a new concept of this term.
1.6.3Johnjoe McFadden, “Synchronous Firing and Its Influence on the Brain’s
Electromagnetic Field,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 9, no. 4., 2002.
human anatomy, the human brain consists of central nervous system, with the
ability to generate an electromagnetic (em) field. This em field
has an effect on the process of awareness and perception of each human being.
The writer of this article proposes that the em field generated by the
brain is the physical foundation of conscious awareness. This theory seems to
regard the brain as a seat of consciousness, instead of the heart. However, the
idea of this theory is still under controversy.
1.6.4Padmasiri de Silva, An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology, 1991.
Introduction to Buddhist Psychology by Padmasiri
de Silva is a book about diverse aspects of the psychology of Buddhism. The
writer denotes that his book is “concerned with the systematization and
interpretation of the psychological questions raised within the discourses of
the Buddha [p. xi].”
background in psychology, Silva directs his interest on the result that arises
from the six sense organs, especially the mind. He compares between Buddhist
perspective of mind and Western therapeutic system. In addition, Silva
discusses about body-mind integration, which is one of the highlighted topics
in the West during the last few decades. At last, Silva illustrates that
Buddhism offers an important pace to resolve interpersonal emotional conflict.
He also outlines one method suggested by the Buddha as an effective way to
resolve this problem by restraining and controlling one’s senses.
1.6.5Philip Whitfield, Human Body Explained, 1995.
explains how the five physical sense organs (the eye, the ear, the nose, the
tongue, and the body) work with simple anatomical explanation. It also explains
the importance of the brain in processing and controlling these sense organs.
This book reveals that the way a human being
outside world is influenced by the effect created by the power of the brain.
1.6.6Rex M. Heyworth, Explore Your World with Science Discovery 2, 2003.
introduces the basic idea of science. The topics that are of interest in this
book cover information related to some sensory receptors and some sense
stimuli. In addition, it explains the particulate models of matter in simple
language. This particulate model of matter has a very interesting characteristic
which is similar to the information of mahÀbhÂtarÂpa in
1.6.7Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Interactions,
firsts published in Clinical Applications of Bioelectromagnetic Medicine,
explains the importance of the heart as one of the sense organs of human
beings. The writer shows that the heart can produce an em field, which
is much stronger than the em field that is produced by the brain.
This em field
is radiated outside the body. It is strong enough to have an effect on the
brain of other people. Since this em field bounds to the heart, this information
may give a new scope to the delimitation of the hadayavatthu mentioned
in the Buddhist scriptures. It must be noted here that the result of the study
by McCraty is not widely accepted and is not verified by other scientists.
1.6.8Suwands H. J. Sugunasiri, “The Whole Body, Not Heart, As ‘Seat of
Consciousness’: The Buddha’s View,” Philosophy East and West 45, no. 3,
In this paper,
the writer tries to locate the seat of consciousness. He believes that the theory
of the hadayavatthu as the seat of consciousness was created during the
post-Buddhian period. He argues that the seat of consciousness covers the whole
body. In order to support his theory, he
Buddhist scholars, Roy E. John and Deepak Chopra, who also views the whole body
as the seat of consciousness. John proposes that the seat of consciousness
spreads throughout the whole body via its neuroskeletal system. However, Chopra
has the idea that the seat of consciousness resides in every DNA starting from the very first DNA
molecule before the embryo begins to divide.
1.6.9Thongkam Sunthornthepvarakul, PasÀdarÂpa 5 (CD), n.d. Thongkam Sunthornthepvarakul
is a Buddhist scholar whose background is in medical science. He explains the pasÀdarÂpa
through a comparison of information on the pasÀdarÂpa appeared in
the Commentaries with the human anatomy. Sunthornthepvarakul’s comparison
between the pasÀdarÂpa in the Buddhist scriptures and human anatomy in
science. He uses his findings to explain and to encourage other people to
practice insight meditation by following the guideline of the satipaÇÇhÀna.
1.7 Expected Advantages
completing this thesis, the following advantages should be obtained:
1.7.1A deeper understanding of the term Àyatana both in its general
and in its particular aspects.
1.7.2A clearer understanding of the twelve Àyatanas in the Buddhist
scriptures and the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli in science.
1.7.3An awareness of the correlation between Buddhism andscience.
1.8 Method of Study
The purpose of
this research is to compare and correlate the twelve
Àyatanas in the
Buddhist scriptures with the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli in
science. The statements of the problems are investigated mainly through
documentary research, especially in the TipiÇaka, AÇÇhakathÀs and
scientific books. The research methodologies are divided into three main
1.8.1Data Collection Stage
Collecting data about the term Àyatana from Vedic- Sanskrit traditions,
and texts. Due to the scope of the study, the Jan Gonda research and
various Sanskrit and PÀli dictionaries are to be used during this
data about the twelve Àyatanas from the primary and secondary sources. A
reliable translation of these texts is chosen, including the translation from
the Pali Text Society, the Buddhist Publication Society, and the Wisdom
Publications. The scope of the study about the description of the twelve Àyatanas
is based on A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics (DhammasaôgaõÁ),
The Book of Analysis (Vibhaôga), The Dispeller of
and The Expositor (AÇÇhasÀlinÁ).
data related to human anatomy, the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli from
textbooks, journals and other sources.
1.8.2Data Analysis Stage
Analyzing the etymology of terms related to the twelve Àyatanas. This
process clarifies and provides a deeper understanding for each related term.
Systemizing data into three main sections. The first section is related to the
various meanings of the term Àyatana. The second one is contributed to
the information of the twelve Àyatanas. The last section is the
comparison between the statements in the Buddhist literature and in science.
1.8.3Data Conclusion Stage: Conclusion and suggestions for further research
1.9 The Limitations of the Research
intends to study the parallels between the twelve Àyatanas in the
Buddhist scriptures and the sensory receptors and the sense stimuli findings in
science. The findings of the research are tentative, since the study is related
to discoveries in science that are subject to change all the time. Therefore,
this study cannot be the final word, since there will always
be new scientific
discoveries and new interpretations of Buddhist philosophy as well as
interpretations of scriptures that may also be subject to change. In addition,
this research limits the study only sensory receptors and sensestimuli, and
does not cover sense perception, i.e. not how the receptors andstimuli
interaction comes to be perceived.
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Verses and Stories
Dhammapada Verse 164 . The Wicked Are Self-Destructive
The Wicked Are Self-Destructive
man unwise relies
on evil views and so condemns
the Teaching of the Arahats,
or Noble Ones who Dhamma live,
he, as a bamboo fruiting,
fruits to self-destruction.
Explanation: There are some ignorant ones who, due to some
harmful views, obstruct the teachings of noble saints, who conduct their lives
righteously. They, like the bamboo plant that are destroyed when they bear
fruit, are self-destructing.
i.e, PraBuddha Bharath scientific
Philosophy and Comparative
International Relations and Peace
Business Management in relation to
Public Policy and Development Studies;
Languages and Literature;
i.e, PraBuddha Bharath scientific
Science and Buddhism .. part 1
originally appeared in Lotus Realm in Spring 2001. It was entitled “The Great
Wonder – Science and the Universe”. I never thought that title really worked so
I’ve claimed author’s privilege and changed it here. I’ve also divided the
article into two parts as it’s quite long.
This is a bit of
writing about my sense of wonder in the face of the world we live in and the
universe as we come to understand it. Well, it’s not just my sense of wonder.
The ability to look and wonder is one of mankind’s wondrous qualities and
Lotus Realm no
longer exists. It was written and produced by women members of the Western
Buddhist order and their friends.
After the sun
has set, there is a
very bright star visible just now in the western sky. A couple of years ago,
when I was in India, I saw the same star setting westwards over the Arabian
Sea. It was followed by a red star moving in the same westerly direction but
setting much later. What are these bright stars? The one which is setting soon
after the sun just now is Venus. She is the goddess of love – beautiful,
powerful, and sometimes jealous. Behind her across the Indian sky came red Mars
called the God of War by the ancient Greeks. Another bright star in the Indian
sky is Abhijit, Victorious, who helped the Hindu gods to conquer the asuras. (ref 1) Arabian sky-watchers called it
Vega. Two more bright stars, one white and the other yellow, have been very
noticeable for most of the past year if you live in the northern hemisphere at
a latitude of about 65 degrees north. If you are a regular sky-watcher you’ll
have noticed that they are not so bright as they were last year and you’ll also
know that they have been tracking across the sky relative to the other stars
and that they weren’t there at all a couple of years ago. And these two other
stars? They are Jupiter, father of all these gods, and Saturn, the old god whom
Jove/Jupiter overturned to take the throne.
Leaving the sky and looking at the earth, near
Edinburgh there is a spot on the East Lothian coast of Scotland, where, in the
early eighteen hundreds, Charles Lyell sat and looked at the layering in the
rocks and thought… and thought…and started out on the chain of reasoning that
was to bring him right up against the deeply-held view of his day that this
earth of ours was wrought from nothingness by the hand of God some 4004 years
previously. Not a Greek god this one, of course, but the Yahweh of the Old
Testament. If Lyell had been in India in some equivalent spot he’d not have had
such a hard time declaring his startling conclusions about the likely age of
those rocks. Ancient Indian views of the cosmos had already portrayed the
present universe as of an incalculable age. And, not only that, but of a nature
where whole world systems periodically come into being and go out of being over
an even more immensely vast timescale – thereby forestalling any need for the
cosmological First Cause represented in the figure Yahweh. Lyell’s train of
thought gave rise to modern geology. Geology has a lot more in common with the
ancient Indian cosmological time-scale than it did with the Christian
Further down the east coast of Britain is a place
called Whitby. If you walk along the cliffs there and in the surrounding bays,
you’ll likely come across some seashells. These shells are remarkable in that
they are embedded in the rocks. In fact they are rock – but somehow in the
shape of shells. Some are recognisable from the ordinary shells lying beside
them washed up by the tide; some are unlike any shell washed up on the present
day beach but clearly a shell nonetheless. The shells at Whitby are often spiral
in shape. What
are they? They are the coiled up venomous snakes
which Abbess St Hilda changed into stone so that they would not bite and poison
her monks and nuns in Whitby Abbey or the local population of Whitby. It’s not
recorded what St Hilda thought about the bones of huge dragon-like creatures
which occasionally became visible when parts of the Whitby cliffs collapsed.
But no doubt such a determined and confident woman would not have quailed at a
Myth and the
Have you ever wondered what the fore-runner of science
is? It could be myth. This is an idea suggested by Karl Popper, the 20th
century philosopher of scientific method. (ref
2) One of his main ideas is that far from starting out with an open
mind, then forming a theory by drawing inductions from objective evidence, in
practice scientists start off with a definite view, then gather and consider
subsequent evidence and then modify the view accordingly – or not, if they have
too much invested in the old view. Myth, he suggests, might be the starting off
‘view’ of ‘proto-scientists’ many centuries ago. And a view begins with an
emotional response. What might their emotional response to their world have
been? Consider this imaginative description of pre-historic Man’s response to
the universe in which he found himself:
beginning, we may say, life was a mystery. That, at least, was how it seemed to
primitive humanity. Without formulating it as such, people felt, as though in
the blood, that life was strange, incomprehensible: a mystery. Then later on,
though still during humankind’s unrecorded past, people began, consciously and
explicitly, to think about life. Our ancestors apprehended that they were
-without knowing how or why - in the midst of what seemed to be a strange and
even hostile world, surrounded by all sorts of things which they could not
understand or control. In the morning they saw the sun rise, and in the evening
they saw it set. But why the sun rose and why it set, and what happened to it
when darkness fell, they just did not know. Sometimes there were great storms,
the world grew dark, rain fell, thunder seemed to crack open the earth and the
sky would be lit up by an intermittent and terrible glare. But what caused
these disturbances no one could tell. The days might be long and warm, or they
might be short and freezing, but why they should be so was, again, a mystery.
Eventually, they discovered that they could strike two stones together to make
fire – and here was another mystery. Almost as soon as these mysteries arose,
it seems, they would have been where named and given a place in a larger
pattern of meaning whereby people could make some sense of their lives.
Sangharakshita (ref 3)
If this was the proto-scientist’s response then I can
recognise similarities with my own as I grew up and started wondering and
finding out more about the world I lived in. Being now somewhat better read
than I was then, it also puts me in mind of Aristotle’s view that, “it is owing
to their wonder that men now begin, and first began, to philosophise.”
Aristotle mapped out the beginnings of scientific
investigation and separated them into separate fields of enquiry. Philosophy
and science (science is just the Latin word for ‘knowing’) were not such
separate disciplines then as they appear to be now. Indeed, for a long time the
philosophers and the scientists were the same men. And the beginnings of
science, certainly of the scientists’ aspirations, are to be found in the
contemplative spiritual exercises of the Stoics and Epicureans. For the ancient
Greeks, Natural Philosophy, Physics, was a necessary contemplative exercise
which Aristotle describes thus:
fashions Creatures, gives amazing pleasure in their study to all who can trace
links of causation, and are naturally Philosophers.
And Philo wrote:
practice wisdom are excellent contemplators of nature and everything she
contains (they are joined in thought to the sun and moon, and all the other
stars, both fixed and wandering) and though they are attached to the earth by
their bodies they provide their souls with wings.
dancing stars - NASA archive
Is that not a wondrous sentence? I think that more than any
other sentence I have yet found tells you what it feels like to try to
understand the world we live in, in all its detail and complexity, and yet
never lose a sense of its wonder and beauty. Indeed its wonder and beauty
become even more clear and strongly felt in delving into its make-up, origins
These quotes from Aristotle and Philo are from Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre
Hadot. (ref 4) Reading that
book and one by Brian Magee, The Great
Philosophers (ref 5) has changed my opinion of Western
philosophers. Twenty years or so ago I was a rather disparaging critic of
Western philosophy as an occupation for seemingly idle thinkers who just sat
behind their desks and made it all up as they pleased. (At the time, my
criticism was uninformed but that didn’t stop me!) Scientists, it seemed to me
at the time, were not so full of hubris and vanity. We got out there and did
some actual work and got some evidence before we attempted to explain the
Universe. Magee draws out the links between the emergence of ideas in Western
philosophical terms and the parallel empirical observations and emergence of
scientific ideas. What is fascinating in his book is how he brings to life the
interplay and even cross-fertilisation of ideas between them.
But not everyone feels towards scientific enquiry like
this. Indeed some have felt the opposite. William Blake didn’t like Isaac
Newton’s new take on the world. The great English visionary rejected what he
saw as the notion of God with measuring callipers in his hand. He wrote
For Bacon and
Newton, sheath’d in dismal steel, their terrors hang
scourges over Albion Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my
limbs .. (ref 6)
John Keats trained as a surgeon but thankfully for us gave
it up and gave us his poetry instead. He too resisted what he felt to be the
implications of Newton’s work on the nature of light and his discovery of the
scientific origins of the rainbow. When he wrote,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on
earth, and all ye need to know’
He was protesting against the discovery of how prisms
diffract sunlight into rainbow colours. He felt that
rainbow over Bala hills, Wales
unweaving the rainbow stole possibilities of beauty and
poetry from the world. For a fascinating account of this kind of emotional
response to science see the book Unweaving
the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. (ref
7) Though disagreeing with Keats’ response, Dawkins pays tribute to
his sensitivity and genius: “Keats was a more likeable character than Newton
and his shade was one of the imaginary referees looking over my shoulder as I
But despite these responses, perhaps the impulses
which led Blake to mysticism and Keats to poetry are much the same sense of awe
and wonder that lead others to look at the skies, the oceans, the landscape,
and all their myriad occupants and prompt them to much effort, thought and
experiment in trying to find out how these wonders have appeared, their causes
and conditions, and their underlying connections.
To return to the proto-scientists:
view of the world held in any one society or social group … would satisfy
people for perhaps a very long time indeed. But eventually some inconsistencies
would appear, some aspects of the world or of themselves would be discovered
that could not be explained within that system, that would not fit into it.
Some people would then simply choose to muddle along with the old system,
making a few adjustments here and there, while others would dismantle the whole
apparatus and start again from a completely different governing principle. (ref 3)
This is the hub of it! “..eventually some
inconsistencies would appear.. “. This is the essential scientific point of
What do you do when an inconsistency appears in your
life or work? How do you feel? Excited? Curious? or Threatened? Fearful?
Complacent? Do you want to draw out the inconsistency more clearly? Ignore it?
Or swamp it with quibbles and old theories refurbished for the occasion? These
sorts of inconsistencies are the cutting edge of science. They are the windows
that open out to better and deeper understanding. The process of gaining
understanding involves a readiness to let go of the old ideas, even though your
scientific reputation may have been founded on them! The ideas and theories of
science can only be provisional, not to be known with absolute certainty, and a
good scientist is aware of that. If he were not aware of that there would be no
way he could be a scientist because he would have no way for him to improve his
theories and predictions.
As a young researcher in chemistry, I was brought up
on this sort of ‘creed’. I remember an initial panic in the first few weeks of
starting my PhD work. It went along the lines of how was anything I found out
(about the catalytic properties of titanium dioxide) going to be able to stand
significantly beside the great body of what was already known? After all it
might not agree with what was already known. In that case, why would anyone pay
any attention to me? The answer, I realised, was that everyone would pay
attention to my results – if I did the experiments reproducibly and in
accordance with scientific method. If I did that and discovered a major
inconsistency then it was open to me to dismantle the preceding body of
scientific thought on the subject and rebuild it on a firmer footing that
explained more than had been explained before – and other scientists would
In fact the catalytic properties of titanium dioxide,
though interesting enough in their way, did not overturn much of the currently
held scientific theories on catalysis! But nevertheless – imagine the thrill of
watching an experiment come to its conclusion aware that only you, of all
beings on the planet, knew what had happened. These experimental conditions had
never existed together before, nobody had ever seen this before and so far only
you knew about it. And often you didn’t understand it!
But go back a hundred and fifty years and you find the
publication of a piece of scientific research and thought that really was
world-shattering in its implications, namely the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.
It’s not that easy a read but there is a version of the same ideas and
arguments, updated with subsequent discoveries, called Almost Like a Whale by Steve Jones.(ref 8) Try that. To understand the
uproar caused by Origins you need to know that it came out subsequent to
Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Together
these books dared to challenge the unchallengeable, that hither-to-fore edifice
of authority – the Bible. Actually Lyell and Darwin were not the only source of
challenge to the Bible in nineteenth century Europe but they especially brought
to bear one very important quality of science. Science works. It is incredibly
successful in describing and understanding the world around us, in making
predictions, and in providing the underlying theory for inventors and
innovators. It has a lot of weight because of that. People may not like its
conclusions but they can’t gainsay the weight of empirical evidence with which
it backs up those conclusions. In fact, of course, people can gainsay anything
and frequently do. The Darwin / Lyell world view is still being denied and
opposed by Creationists in USA and elsewhere. Just not with any evidence!
Going back to the idea that science starts with myth.
I think this is a way of saying that science starts with a sense of wonder, and
it looks and observes the object of its wonder. A long time ago things were
explained by myth .. And then at some point some people began to think the myth
was being taken too literally.
Modern science has mainly been a western phenomenon,
though with important exceptions. A major myth of
Darwin and the Ape Man - 19th century
western culture is the myth presented in the Bible. What
happens when the scientist starts to gather evidence that what the myth
suggests to be true is in conflict with our actual experience in world? That
depends on whether people believe their own myths literally. The uproar in
response to Origins was
probably in direct proportion to the tendency within Christianity to believe
fully and literally in its own myths – especially its myth of Creation, Created
and Creator. It has to be admitted that a myth which places mankind at the head
of Creation has some appeal to one’s ego. No wonder, then, that Darwin was
mercilessly lampooned, and worse, for telling us that we were in facts
descendants of monkeys!
1. Sagan, Karl, Contact, Century
2. Magee, Brian,
Popper,Fontana press, 1986
Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha, p8 Windhorse,
Pierre, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p97-98,
5. Magee, B, The Great
William, from ‘Bacon, Newton and Locke,’ in Jerusalem
Richard, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin Classic,
8. Jones, Steve,
Like a Whale
Move on to
Imagination, Science and Buddhism, Part 2
Back to Articles Main Page
Science and Buddhism .. part 2
coming up … download complete article at the end of this…
Some of the scientists, philosophers and theologists
of 18th and 19th century Europe were in process of demolishing the Bible’s
claims to authority. What I sometimes feel connected with when attempting to
understand the thinking of these philosophers is a great surge of freed
imagination and purpose, strong enough to demolish whatever wrong thinking it
encountered. Hume and Kant helped undermine Ontological, Cosmological and By
Design proofs for the existence of God. To put it simply, these were ‘proofs’,
actually just statements, that God existed because He was a ‘necessary’ Truth;
or He existed because things are contingent and need a necessary First Cause;
and the related argument that things being so obviously designed there must be
a Designer. The German scholar and theologian David Strauss gave a helping hand
to the demolition process with his linguistic and historical analysis of the
Bible. His work was translated into English by George Eliot under the title of The Life of Jesus. Biblical authority
couldn’t stand up to such analysis which was probably why none of it was
studied in Catholic seminaries of the time.
What was Darwin and Lyell’s particular contribution to all
this movement of reaction against the major myth of their times? Lyell’s
geology demonstrated the impossibility of believing that the world had been
created all in one go some few thousand years ago. In Darwin’s case, others
before him had promoted a theory of evolution but his unique contribution was
to expound the theory of natural selection and thus remove any necessity for
what has been called a ‘metaphor of purpose’ when contemplating natural
history. The notion of God was no longer a necessary truth, cause or designer.
Further, Darwin showed there hadn’t even been a nice regular staircase of
development with man standing on the top floor. There were in fact many hopeful
starts that came to nothing. Evolution can happen – but frequently doesn’t. Or
else goes extinct. There is no evidence of an imperative purpose involved in
it. He also provided an alternative explanation for those stone snakes and
dragons on Whitby beach! Was ‘God’s Funeral’ about to begin? At least in
Europe? All these different threads and influences are followed through in A.
N. Wilson’s book of the same name.(ref 9)
Did the challenge to religious authority by Giordano
Bruno and Galileo some 200 years before come to fruition with Darwin and his
fellow scientists and philosophers? Giordana Bruno thought that the universe,
like God, was infinite, that the earth travelled round the sun and that in the
cosmos there were many earths. He was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. His
brave last words were:
‘I neither ought to recant nor will I. I have nothing to
recant, nor do I know what I should recant.’ (ref 10)
As I write those words I feel a wave of emotion –
gratitude, respect, immense admiration of the courage and conviction human
beings can show in the service of the truth, knowing that their actions are
leading straight to death. In this case a very painful death.
A Sense of
In 1610, Galileo looked through his telescope and
saw Jupiter and four of its moons. Not a wandering star but
the Galilean moons of Jupiter
a planet and one, like the Earth, that revolves round the
Sun not the other way round. Nowadays, with a click of a mouse button, science
gives us awe-inspiring close-up photographs of this giant of a planet – as
awe-inspiring surely to some of us as his mythic predecessor was to the Greeks.
And is not Venus as beautiful as ever in the evening and morning skies? Though
now we know that she too is a planet shrouded not in ‘the mists and yellow
fruitfulness’ ,of Earth but in her own trailing clouds of sulphuric and nitric
acids and carbon dioxide covering forever her often molten surface of glowing
lava and flowing rocks. Only a few million miles between us and Venus and yet
look at the difference – on this earth conditions combine to form Keats and
Newton, oceans and blue skies; on Venus, no such life is possible. Much the
same can be said for Mars, the red planet – a few million miles in the other
direction and again no such life can exist. And who knows what planets revolve
round Vega! Indeed who knows – as yet – what planets and what beings revolve
round any of the myriad stars in our own galaxy or any of innumerable other
galaxies, some of them now visible to us via the Hubble telescope that orbits
high up in our sky. In some ways the ideas that so shook the world of 19th
century Europe have become commonplace. But that may not be to our advantage.
It’s one thing to be convinced, it’s another merely to take it for granted.
The challenge to Christian religious authority is
well established now, even commonplace. But although Darwin certainly held
irreligious non-Christian world views himself and many others of his
contemporaries found their way to similar positions, it was by no means true
that most 19th century scientists did so. Or even 20th century scientists. The
question to be raised and answered is again about myth. Myths can be undermined
if they are held too absolutely and they can be in conflict with experience.
Does this mean there is no place for myth in our lives? Or no place for
religion? Einstein certainly did not think so:
Science without religion is lame. Religion without science
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have
is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as
well as all serious endeavour in art and science. (Ref 11)
Nor would Newton, though he had his difficulties
with some Christian dogma:
I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself,
I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting
myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than
ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
Truth is the offspring of silence and unbroken meditation.
and the Buddhist
Much more could be said. In particular about science
and Buddhism – indeed this is the first mention of Buddhism in this article! I
might have said a lot about impermanence and insubstantiality and to what
extent empirical scientific enquiry can find its way to the Wisdom which Buddha
points us towards. What and where are the limits of reason? Or I might have
attempted some comments about the implications for a Buddhist ex-scientist of
Hume’s thoughts on causation. It is fairly easy for such an ex-scientist to be
complacent about the provisional nature of scientific thought – about how it
can’t be proved but progresses through being disproved. It is another thing
altogether to contemplate that perhaps there are no causal links at all. Where
do Hume and the Dharma lead us in this respect and can science follow? I am not
going to enter that domain here. It needs a lot more thought by me.
Instead I’m going to send this article off to my
Internet provider and hope that it lands in the Lotus Realm e-mail box. And tomorrow, I’m off to lead a
retreat on the White Lotus Sutra. It’s
a sutra of nearly all myth and parable and has very little in the way of
conceptual content. It also has very little that is in conflict with anything
I’ve been talking about here. It can easily hold the Hubble telescope’s
vastness of perspective, both of space and of time, within its own perspective
of infinite world-systems and infinite space. It states in its own way the idea
of an interrelated, interconnected and conditioned Universe. If I still thought
that science could satisfy my search for meaning, I’d still be a scientist. It
did satisfy me for a time. What happened? It is hard to say. In some ways I
think my idealism outgrew science. In other ways I got to the point of having
my university job made permanent and fairly quickly after that found myself
wondering whether I really wanted to carryon doing it. Basically I wasn’t
satisfied by it any longer. I’d been meditating for about a year by then.
What started me meditating? I came across the
Glasgow Buddhist Centre and I remembered how impressed I’d been years before
when I read some books about Buddhism. Mostly what impressed me was that it was
a religion that did not involve believing in God. What impressed me next was
that I thought there would be no conflict between Buddhism and science,
especially when I read about the levels of conditionality which Buddhism
described as operating in the universe. I thought that Buddhism would fit very
easily into a scientific perspective. It took me a few years to see that this
was the wrong way round!
Other things challenged me as well. I realised that
although I was happy in many ways with partner, baby daughter, house, car etc.
something else was still needed for a sense of deeper satisfaction. Science
asks the question, how? I suppose I started asking the question, Why? Science
seemed inadequate to the job of providing a satisfactory answer. The Dharma was
not only adequate but overflowing with the offer of meaning and of providing a
deeper satisfaction. Twenty years on I am still influenced by my scientific
background and I’m grateful for its inspiration and clarity. I’m grateful to
those earlier scientists, men who helped break down adherence to the myths in
my culture that had begun to bind men’s minds rather than free them. However
commonplace their ideas are now, those men had to face a great spiritual
insecurity and sometimes emotional bleakness in striving to honour their thinking.
For me it has been very different. With my thinking formed by standing on their
shoulders, it has been easy task to move into a different religious setting
from theirs and a different – and much richer â€“ mythic inheritance. And I am
very glad that what inspired them has led me to understand something of the
Buddha’s teaching and its one taste, the taste of freedom, where myth and
intellect live not in mutual enmity but in mutual wonder.
Karl, Contact, Century Hutchison, 2000
Brian, Popper,Fontana press, 1986
Sangharakshita, Who is the Buddha, p8 Windhorse,
Pierre, Philosophy as a Way of Life, p97-98,
5. Magee, B, The Great
William, from ‘Bacon, Newton and Locke,’ in Jerusalem
Richard, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin
Steve, Almost Like a Whale
9. Wilson, A
N, God’s Funeral, Abacus Books,
James, Galileo -A Life, Cassell 1994
& Gribbon, Einstein - A Life in Science, Simon and Schuster, 1994.
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In the second decade of the twenty-first century, alchemy is not only about the
transmutation of metals, but the shift in consciousness that returns us from the physical to the
its history, alchemy has shown a dual nature. On the one hand, it has involved
the use of chemical substances and so is claimed by the history of science as
the precursor of modern chemistry. Yet at the same time, alchemy has,
throughout its history, also been associated with the esoteric, spiritual
beliefs of Hermeticism and thus is a proper subject
for the historian of religious thought. Such an approach is complemented by the
psychological studies of Carl Jung, which correlate alchemical
symbolism with the development of the psycho-religious life of the individual.
Alchemy was practiced in Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Japan,
Korea and China, in Classical Greece and Rome, in the Muslim civilizations, and
then in Europe up to the 19th century in a complex network of schools and
philosophical systems spanning at least 2,500 years.
history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation
of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining
elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics,
mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force.
is an ancient path of spiritual purification and transformation; the expansion
of consciousness and the development of insight and intuition through images.
Alchemy is steeped in mysticism and mystery. It presents to the initiate a
system of eternal, dreamlike, esoteric symbols that have the power to alter
consciousness and connect the human soul to the Divine.
part of the mystical and mystery traditions of both East and West. In the West,
it dates to ancient Egypt, where adepts first developed it as an early form of
chemistry and metallurgy. Egyptians alchemists used their art to make alloys,
dyes, perfumes and cosmetic jewelry, and to embalm the dead.
early Arabs made significant contributions to alchemy, such as by emphasizing
the mysticism of numbers (quantities and lengths of time for processes). The
Arabs also gave us the term ‘alchemy’, from the Arabic term ‘alchimia’, which
loosely translated means ‘the Egyptian art’.
medieval and Renaissance times, alchemy spread through the Western world, and
was further developed by Kabbalists, Rosicrucians, astrologers and other
occultists. It functioned on two levels: mundane and spiritual. On a mundane
level, alchemists sought to find a physical process to convert base metals such
as lead into gold. On a spiritual level, alchemists worked to purify themselves
by eliminating the “base” material of the self and achieving the
‘gold’ of enlightenment.
Renaissance times, many alchemists believed that the spiritual purification was
necessary in order to achieve the mundane transformations of metals.
alchemists relied heavily upon their dreams, inspirations and visions for
guidance in perfecting their art. In order to protect their secrets, they
recorded diaries filled with mysterious symbols rather than text. These symbols
remain exceptionally potent for changing states of consciousness.
is a form of speculative thought that, among other aims, tried to transform
base metals such as lead or copper into silver or gold and to discover a cure
for disease and a way of extending life.
was the name given in Latin Europe in the 12th century to an aspect of thought
that corresponds to astrology, which is apparently an older tradition. Both
represent attempts to discover the relationship of man to the cosmos and to
exploit that relationship to his benefit. The first of these objectives may be
called scientific, the second technological.
is concerned with man’s relationship to “the stars” (including the
members of the solar system); alchemy, with terrestrial nature. But the
distinction is far from absolute, since both are interested in the influence of
the stars on terrestrial events. Moreover, both have always been pursued in the
belief that the processes human beings witness in heaven and on earth manifest
the will of the Creator and, if correctly understood, will yield the key to the
both astrology and alchemy may be regarded as fundamental aspects of thought is
indicated by their apparent universality. It is notable, however, that the
evidence is not equally substantial in all times and places.
from ancient Middle America (Aztecs, Mayans) is still almost nonexistent;
evidence from India is tenuous and from ancient China, Greece, and Islamic
lands is only relatively more plentiful.
single manuscript of some 80,000 words is the principal source for the history
of Greek alchemy.
alchemy is largely recorded in about 100 “books” that are part of the
Indian nor Islamic alchemy has ever been collected, and scholars are thus
dependent for their knowledge of the subject on occasional allusions in works
of natural philosophy and medicine, plus a few specifically alchemical works.
it really clear what alchemy was (or is). The word is a European one, derived
from Arabic, but the origin of the root word, chem, is uncertain. Words similar
to it have been found in most ancient languages, with different meanings, but
conceivably somehow related to alchemy. In fact, the Greeks, Chinese, and
Indians usually referred to what Westerners call alchemy as “The
Art,” or by terms denoting change or transmutation.
Chemistry of Alchemy
the chemistry involved in alchemy appears a hopelessly complicated succession
of heatings of multiple mixtures of obscurely named materials, but it seems
likely that a relative simplicity underlies this complexity. The metals gold,
silver, copper, lead, iron, and tin were all known before the rise of alchemy.
the liquid metal, certainly known before 300 BC, when it appears in both
Eastern and Western sources, was crucial to alchemy. Sulfur, “the stone
that burns,” was also crucial. It was known from prehistoric times in
native deposits and was also given off in metallurgic processes (the
“roasting” of sulfide ores).
united with most of the other metals, and the amalgam formed colored powders
(the sulfides) when treated with sulfur. Mercury itself occurs in nature in a
red sulfide, cinnabar, which can also be made artificially. All of these,
except possibly the last, were operations known to the metallurgist and were adopted
by the alchemist.
alchemist added the action on metals of a number of corrosive salts, mainly the
vitriols (copper and iron sulfates), alums (the aluminum sulfates of potassium
and ammonium), and the chlorides of sodium and ammonium. And he made much of
arsenic’s property of colouring metals. All of these materials, except the
chloride of ammonia, were known in ancient times.
as sal ammoniac in the West, nao sha in China, nao sadar in India, and nushadir
in Persia and Arabic lands, the chloride of ammonia first became known to the
West in the Chou-i ts’an t’ung ch’i, a Chinese treatise of the 2nd century AD.
to be crucial to alchemy, for on sublimation it dissociates into antagonistic
corrosive materials, ammonia and hydrochloric acid, which readily attack the
metals. Until the 9th century it seems to have come from a single source, the
Flame Mountain (Huo-yen Shan) near T’u-lu-p’an (Turfan), in Central Asia.
the manipulation of these materials was to lead to the discovery of the mineral
acids, the history of which began in Europe in the 13th century. The first was
probably nitric acid, made by distilling together saltpetre (potassium nitrate)
and vitriol or alum. More difficult to discover was sulfuric acid, which was
distilled from vitriol or alum alone but required apparatus resistant to
corrosion and heat. And most difficult was hydrochloric acid, distilled from
common salt or sal ammoniac and vitriol or alum, for the vapours of this acid
cannot be simply condensed but must be dissolved in water.
is the key word characterizing alchemy, and it may be understood in several
ways: in the changes that are called chemical, in physiological changes such as
passing from sickness to health, in a hoped-for transformation from old age to
youth, or even in passing from an earthly to a supernatural existence.
Alchemical changes seem always to have been positive, never involving
degradation except as an intermediate stage in a process having a “happy
ending.” Alchemy aimed at the great human “goods”: wealth,
longevity, and immortality.
was not original in seeking these goals, for it had been preceded by religion,
medicine, and metallurgy. The first chemists were metallurgists, who were
perhaps the most successful practitioners of the arts in antiquity. Their
theories seem to have come not from science but from folklore and religion. The
miner and metallurgist, like the agriculturalist, in this view, accelerate the
normal maturation of the fruits of the earth, in a magico-religious
relationship with nature. In primitive societies the metallurgist is often a
member of an occult religious society.
first ventures into natural philosophy, the beginnings of what is called the
scientific view, also preceded alchemy. Systems of five almost identical basic
elements were postulated in China, India, and Greece, according to a view in
which nature comprised antagonistic, opposite forces–hot and cold, positive
and negative, and male and female; i.e., primitive versions of the modern
conception of energy. Drawing on a similar astrological heritage, philosophers
found correspondences among the elements, planets, and metals. In short, both
the chemical arts and the theories of the philosophers of nature had become
complex before alchemy appeared.
in China nor in the West can scholars approach with certitude the origins of
alchemy, but the evidences in China appear to be slightly older. Indeed,
Chinese alchemy was connected with an enterprise older than metallurgy–i.e.,
medicine. Belief in physical immortality among the Chinese seems to go back to
the 8th century BC, and belief in the possibility of attaining it through drugs
to the 4th century BC. The magical drug, namely the “elixir of life”
(elixir is the European word), is mentioned about that time, and that most
potent elixir, “drinkable gold,” which was a solution (usually
imaginary) of this corrosion-resistant metal, as early as the 1st century
BC–many centuries before it is heard of in the West.
non-Chinese influences (especially Indian) are possible, the genesis of alchemy
in China may have been a purely domestic affair. It emerged during a period of
political turmoil, the Warring States Period (from the 5th to the 3rd century
BC), and it came to be associated with Taoism–a mystical religion founded by
the 6th-century-BC sage Lao-tzu–and its sacred book, the Tao-te Ching
(”Classic of the Way of Power”). The Taoists were a miscellaneous
collection of “outsiders”–in relation to the prevailing
Confucians–and such mystical doctrines as alchemy were soon grafted onto the
Taoist canon. What is known of Chinese alchemy is mainly owing to that graft,
and especially to a collection known as Yün chi ch’i ch’ien (”Seven
Tablets in a Cloudy Satchel”), which is dated 1023. Thus, sources on
alchemy in China (as elsewhere) are compilations of much earlier writings.
oldest known Chinese alchemical treatise is the Chou-i ts’an t’ung ch’i
(”Commentary on the I Ching”). In the main it is an apocryphal
interpretation of the I Ching (”Classic of Changes”), an ancient
classic especially esteemed by the Confucians, relating alchemy to the mystical
mathematics of the 64 hexagrams (six-line figures used for divination). Its
relationship to chemical practice is tenuous, but it mentions materials
(including sal ammoniac) and implies chemical operations.
Chinese alchemist who is reasonably well known was Ko Hung (AD 283-343), whose
book Pao-p’u-tzu (pseudonym of Ko Hung) contains two chapters with obscure
recipes for elixirs, mostly based on mercury or arsenic compounds.
most famous Chinese alchemical book is the Tan chin yao chüeh (”Great
Secrets of Alchemy”), probably by Sun Ssu-miao (AD 581-after 673). It is a
practical treatise on creating elixirs (mercury, sulfur, and the salts of
mercury and arsenic are prominent) for the attainment of immortality, plus a
few for specific cures for disease and such other purposes as the fabrication
of precious stones.
the similarities between the materials used and the elixirs made in China,
India, and the West are more remarkable than are their differences.
Nonetheless, Chinese alchemy differed from that of the West in its objective.
Whereas in the West the objective seems to have evolved from gold to elixirs of
immortality to simply superior medicines, neither the first nor the last of
these objectives seems ever to have been very important in China.
alchemy was consistent from first to last, and there was relatively little
controversy among its practitioners, who seem to have varied only in their
prescriptions for the elixir of immortality or perhaps only over their names
for it, of which one Sinologist has counted about 1,000. In the West there were
conflicts between advocates of herbal and “chemical” (i.e., mineral)
pharmacy, but in China mineral remedies were always accepted.
Europe, there were conflicts between alchemists who favoured gold making and
those who thought medicine the proper goal, but the Chinese always favoured the
latter. Since alchemy rarely achieved any of these goals, it was an advantage
to the Western alchemist to have the situation obscured, and the art survived
in Europe long after Chinese alchemy had simply faded away.
alchemy followed its own path. Whereas the Western world, with its numerous
religious promises of immortality, never seriously expected alchemy to fulfill
that goal, the deficiencies of Chinese religions in respect to promises of
immortality left that goal open to the alchemist. A serious reliance on medical
elixirs that were in varying degrees poisonous led the alchemist into permanent
exertions to moderate those poisons, either through variation of the
ingredients or through chemical manipulations.
fact that immortality was so desirable and the alchemist correspondingly valued
enabled the British historian of science Joseph Needham to tabulate a series of
Chinese emperors who probably died of elixir poisoning. Ultimately a succession
of royal deaths made alchemists and emperors alike more cautious, and Chinese
alchemy vanished (probably as the Chinese adopted Buddhism, which offered other,
less dangerous avenues to immortality), leaving its literary manifestations
embedded in the Taoist canons.
oldest Indian writings, the Vedas (Hindu sacred scriptures), contain the same
hints of alchemy that are found in evidence from ancient China, namely vague
references to a connection between gold and long life. Mercury, which was so
vital to alchemy everywhere, is first mentioned in the 4th- to 3rd-century-BC
Artha-sastra, about the same time it is encountered in China and in the West.
of the idea of transmuting base metals to gold appears in 2nd- to
5th-century-AD Buddhist texts, about the same time as in the West. Since
Alexander the Great had invaded India in 325 BC, leaving a Greek state
(Gandhara) that long endured, the possibility exists that the Indians acquired
the idea from the Greeks, but it could have been the other way around.
also possible that the alchemy of medicine and immortality came to India from
China, or vice versa; in any case, gold making appears to have been a minor
concern, and medicine the major concern, of both cultures. But the elixir of
immortality was of little importance in India (which had other avenues to
immortality). The Indian elixirs were mineral remedies for specific diseases
or, at the most, to promote long life.
China and the West, alchemy in India came to be associated with religious
mysticism, but much later–not until the rise of Tantrism (an esoteric,
occultic, meditative system), AD 1100-1300. To Tantrism are owed writings that
are clearly alchemical (such as the 12th-century Rasarnava, or “Treatise
on Metallic Preparations”).
the earliest records of Indian natural philosophy, which date from the 5th-3rd
centuries BC, theories of nature were based on conceptions of material elements
(fire, wind, water, earth, and space), vitalism (”animated atoms”),
and dualisms of love and hate or action and reaction.
alchemist colored metals and on occasion “made” gold, but he gave
little importance to that. His six metals (gold, silver, tin, iron, lead, and
copper), each further subdivided (five kinds of gold, etc.), were
“killed” (i.e., corroded) but not “resurrected,” as was the
custom of Western alchemy. Rather, they were killed to make medicines. Although
“the secrets of mercurial lore” became part of the Tantric rite,
mercury seems to have been much less important than in China.
Indians exploited metal reactions more widely, but, although they possessed
from an early date not only vitriol and sal ammoniac but also saltpetre, they
nevertheless failed to discover the mineral acids. This is the more remarkable
because India was long the principal source of saltpetre, which occurs as an
efflorescence on the soil, especially in populous tropical countries.
lacks the high degree of corrosivity of metals possessed by the vitriols and
chlorides and played a small part in early alchemy. Saltpetre appears
particularly in 9th- to 11th-century-AD Indian and Chinese recipes for
fireworks, one of which–a mixture of saltpetre, sulfur, and charcoal–is
gunpowder. Saltpetre first appears in Europe in the 13th century, along with
the modern formula for gunpowder and the recipe for nitric acid.
alchemy may go back to the beginnings of the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC-c.
AD 300), although the earliest alchemist whom authorities have regarded as
authentic is Zosimos of Panopolis (Egypt), who lived near the end of the
period. He is one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical
writings that was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the
7th or 8th century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris.
Synesius, the latest author represented, lived in Byzantium in the 4th century.
The earliest is the author designated Democritus but identified by scholars
with Bolos of Mende, a Hellenized Egyptian who lived in the Nile Delta about
represented by a treatise called Physica et mystica (”Natural and Mystical
Things”), a kind of recipe book for dyeing and colouring but principally
for the making of gold and silver. The recipes are stated obscurely and are
justified with references to the Greek theory of elements and to astrological
end with the phrase “One nature rejoices in another nature; one nature
triumphs over another nature; one nature masters another nature,” which
authorities variously trace to the Magi (Zoroastrian priests), Stoic pantheism
(a Greek philosophy concerned with nature), or to the 4th-century-BC Greek
philosopher Aristotle. It was the first of a number of such aphorisms over
which alchemists were to speculate for many centuries.
a group of ancient papyrus manuscripts written in Greek was purchased in Thebes
(Egypt), and about a half-century later it was noticed that among them, divided
between libraries in Leyden (The Netherlands) and Stockholm, was a tract very
like the Physica et mystica. It differed, however, in that it lacked the
former’s theoretical embellishments and stated in some recipes that only
fraudulent imitation of gold and silver was intended.
believe that this kind of work was the ancestor both of the Physica et Mystica
and of the ordinary artist’s recipe book. The techniques were ancient.
Archaeology has revealed metal objects inlaid with colors obtained by grinding
metals with sulfur, and Homer’s description (8th century BC) of the shield of
Achilles gives the impression that the artist in his time was virtually able to
paint in metal. Democritus is praised by most of the other authors in the
Venice-Paris manuscript, and he is much commented upon.
Zosimos of Panopolis was a Greek alchemist and
Gnostic Mystic from the end of the 3rd century, beginning of the 4th A.D., who
was born in Panopolis, present day Akhmim in the South of Egypt, ca. 300.
about 300 A.D., Zosimos provided one of the first definitions of alchemy:
(330) Ð the study of the composition of waters, movement, growth, embodying and
disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies and bonding the spirits within
wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, of which only quotations in the
original Greek language or translations into Syriac or Arabic are known. He is
one of about 40 authors represented in a compendium of alchemical writings that
was probably put together in Byzantium (Constantinople) in the 7th or 8th
century AD and that exists in manuscripts in Venice and Paris. Stephen of
Alexandria is another.
translations of texts by Zosimos were discovered in 1995 in a copy of the book
Keys of Mercy and Secrets of Wisdom by Ibn Al-Hassan Ibn Ali Al-Tughra’i', a
Persian alchemist. Unfortunately, the translations were incomplete and
famous index of Arabic books, Kitab al-Fihrist by Ibn Al-Nadim, mentions
earlier translations of four books by Zosimos, however due to inconsistency in
transliteration, these texts were attributed to names “Thosimos”,
“Dosimos” and “Rimos”; also it is possible that two of them
are translations of the same book.
general, his understanding of alchemy reflects the influence of Hermetic and
Sethian-Gnostic spiritualities. The external processes of metallic transmutation
the transformations of lead and copper into silver and gold–mirror an inner
purification and redemption.
alchemical vessel is imagined as a baptismal font, and the tincturing vapours
of mercury and sulphur are likened to the purifying waters of baptism, which
perfect and redeem the Gnostic initiate. Here Zosimos draws on the Hermetic
image of the ‘krater’ or mixing bowl, a symbol of the divine mind in which the
Hermetic initiate was ‘baptised’ and purified in the course of a visionary
ascent through the heavens and into the transcendent realms. Similar ideas of a
spiritual baptism in the ‘waters’ of the transcendent Pleroma are
characteristic of the Sethian-Gnostic texts unearthed at Nag Hammadi. This
image of the alchemical vessel as baptismal font is central to his so-called
‘Visions’, discussed below.
shows what had become of alchemy after Bolos of Mende. His theory is luxuriant
in imagery, beginning with a discussion of “the composition of waters,
movement, growth, embodying and disembodying, drawing the spirits from bodies
and binding the spirits within bodies” and continuing in the same vein.
The “base” metals are to be “ennobled” (to gold) by killing
and resurrecting them, but his practice is full of distillation and
sublimation, and he is obsessed with “spirits.” Theory and practice
are joined in the concept that success depends upon the production of a series
of colours, usually black, white, yellow, and purple, and that the colors are
to be obtained through Theion hydor (divine or sulfur water–it could mean
credits these innovations mainly to Maria (sometimes called “the
Jewess”), who invented the apparatus, and to Agathodaimon, probably a
pseudonym. Neither is represented (beyond Zosimos’ references) in the Venice-Paris
manuscript, but a tract attributed to Agathodaimon, published in 1953, shows
him to be preoccupied with the colour sequence and complicating it by using
arsenic instead of sulfur. Thus, the color-producing potentialities of
chemistry were considerable by the time of Zosimos.
The Philosopher’s Stone
also shows that alchemical theory came to focus on the idea that there exists a
substance that can bring about the desired transformation instantly, magically,
or, as a modern chemist might say, catalytically. He called it “the
tincture,” and had several. It was also sometimes called “the
powder” (xerion), which was to pass through Arabic into Latin as elixir
and finally (signifying its inorganic nature) as the “philosopher’s
stone,” “a stone which is not a stone,” as the alchemists were
wont to say.
sometimes called a medicine for the rectification of “base” or
“sick” metals, and from this it was a short step to view it as a drug
for the rectification of human maladies. Zosimos notes the possibility, in
passing. When the objective of alchemy became human salvation, the material
constitution of the elixir became less important than the incantations that
accompanied its production. Synesius, the last author in the Venice-Paris
manuscript, already defined alchemy as a mental operation, independent of the
science of matter.
Greek alchemy came to resemble, in both theory and practice, that of China and
India. But its objectives included gold making; thus it remained fundamentally
alchemy is as mysterious as Greek in its origins, and the two seem to have been
significantly different. The respect in which Physica et mystica was held by
the Greek alchemists was bestowed by the Arabs on a different work, the Emerald
Tablet of Hermes Trismegistos, the reputed Hellenistic author of various
alchemical, occultic, and theological works.
The Emerald Tablets of Thoth
(He was Hermes)
(As is Above, So is Below)
Zero Point Merge
Sacred Geometry - Golden Ratio
Reality as a Consciousness Hologram
“That which is above is like to that which is below,
and that which is below is like to that which is above,”
it is brief, theoretical, and astrological.
“the thrice great” (Trismegistos) was a Greek version of the Egyptian
god Thoth and the supposed founder of an
astrological philosophy that is first noted in 150 BC. The Emerald Tablet,
however, comes from a larger work called Book of the Secret of Creation, which
exists in Latin and Arabic manuscripts and was thought by the Muslim alchemist
ar-Razi to have been written during the reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun (AD 813-833),
though it has been attributed to the 1st-century-AD pagan mystic Apollonius of
scholars have suggested that Arabic alchemy descended from a western Asiatic
school and that Greek alchemy was derived from an Egyptian school. As far as is
known, the Asiatic school was not Chinese or Indian. What is known is that
Arabic alchemy was associated with a specific city in Syria, Harran, which
seems to have been a fountainhead of alchemical notions. And it is possible
that the distillation ideology and its spokeswoman, Maria–as well as
Agathodaimon–represented the alchemy of Harran, which presumably migrated to
Alexandria and was incorporated into the alchemy of Zosimos.
existing versions of the Book of the Secret of Creation have been carried back
only to the 7th or 6th century but are believed by some to represent much
earlier writings, although not necessarily those of Apollonius himself. He is
the subject of an ancient biography that says nothing about alchemy, but
neither does the Emerald Tablet nor the rest of the Book of the Secret of
Creation. On the other hand, their theories of nature have an alchemical ring,
and the Book mentions the characteristic materials of alchemy, including, for
the first time in the West, sal ammoniac. It was clearly an important book to
the Arabs, most of whose eminent philosophers mentioned alchemy, although
who practiced it were even more interested in literal gold making than had been
the Greeks. The most well-attested and probably the greatest Arabic alchemist
was ar-Razi (c. 850-923/924), a Persian physician who lived in Baghdad. The
most famous was Jabir ibn Hayyan, now believed to be a name applied to a
collection of “underground writings” produced in Baghdad after the
theological reaction against science. In any case, the Jabirian writings are
very similar to those of ar-Razi.
classified the materials used by the alchemist into “bodies” (the
metals), stones, vitriols, boraxes, salts, and “spirits,” putting
into the latter those vital (and sublimable) materials, mercury, sulfur,
orpiment and realgar (the arsenic sulfides), and sal ammoniac. Much is made of
sal ammoniac, the reactive powers of which seem to have given Western alchemy a
new lease on life. Ar-Razi and the Jabirian writers were really trying to make
gold, through the catalytic action of the elixir. Both wrote much on the compounding
of “strong waters,” an enterprise that was ultimately to lead to the
discovery of the mineral acids, but students have been no more able to find
evidence of this discovery in the writings of the Arabic alchemists than in
those of China and India. The Arabic strong waters were merely corrosive salt
writing represents the apogee of Arabic alchemy, so much so that students of
alchemy have little evidence of its later reorientation toward mystical or
quasi-religious objectives. Nor does it seem to have turned to medicine, which
remained independent. But there was a tendency in Arabic medicine to give
greater emphasis to mineral remedies and less to the herbs that had been the
chief medicines of the earlier Greek and Arabic physicians. The result was a
pharmacopoeia not of elixirs but of specific remedies that are inorganic in
origin and not very different from the elixirs of ar-Razi. This new
pharmacopoeia was taken to Europe by Constantine of Africa, a Baghdad-educated
Muslim who died in 1087 as a Christian monk at Monte Cassino (Italy). The
pharmacopoeia also appeared in Spain in the 11th century and passed from there
to Latin Europe, along with the Arabic alchemical writings, which were
translated into Latin in the 12th century.
12th century the Christian West began to shed its habit of indifference or
hostility to the secular literature of ancient and alien civilizations.
Christian scholars were particularly attracted to Muslim Spain and Sicily and
there made translations from both Arabic and Greek works, many of which were in
some degree familiar, but some of which, including the literature of alchemy,
Greek alchemy of the Venice-Paris manuscript had much less impact than the work
of ar-Razi and other Arabs, which emerged among the voluminous translations
made in Spain about 1150 by Gerard of Cremona. By 1250 alchemy was familiar
enough to enable such encyclopaedists as Vincent of Beauvais to discuss it
fairly intelligibly, and before 1300 the subject was under discussion by the
English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon and the German philosopher,
scientist, and theologian Albertus Magnus.
learn about alchemy was to learn about chemistry, for Europe had no independent
word to describe the science of matter. It had been touched upon in works
concerned with other forms of change–e.g., the motion of projectiles, the
aging of man, and similar Aristotelian concepts. On the practical side there
were also artists’ recipe books; but for the first time in the works of Bacon
and Albertus Magnus change was discussed in a truly chemical sense, with Bacon
treating the newly translated alchemy as a general science of matter for which
he had great hopes.
more familiar alchemy became, the more clearly it was understood that gold
making was the almost exclusive objective of alchemy, and Europeans proved no
more resistant to the lure of this objective than their Arabic predecessors. By
1350, alchemical tracts were pouring out of the scriptoria (monastic copying
rooms), and the Europeans had even taken over the tradition of anonymity and
authority wrote at length about supposed disagreements between two Arabs,
Iahiae Abindinon and Geber Abinhaen, who were probably two versions of the name
of Jabir ibn Hayyan. The most famous Jabirian work in Europe, The Sum of
Perfection, is now thought to have been an original European composition. At
about this time personal reminiscences of alchemists began to appear.
famous was the Paris notary Nicolas Flamel (1330-1418), who claimed that he dreamed of an
occult book, subsequently found it, and succeeded in deciphering it with the
aid of a Jewish scholar learned in the mystic Hebrew writings known as the
Kabbala. In 1382 Flamel claimed to have succeeded in the “Great Work”
(gold making); certainly he became rich and made donations to churches.
alchemists had begun the discovery of the mineral acids, a discovery that
occupied about three centuries between the first evidence of the new strong
water (aqua fortis–i.e., nitric acid) and the clear differentiation of the
acids into three kinds: nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric. These three
centuries saw prodigious efforts in European alchemy, for these spontaneously
reactive and highly corrosive substances opened a whole new world of research.
And yet, it was of little profit to chemistry, for the experiments were
inhibited by the old objectives of separating the base metals into their
“elements,” concocting elixirs, and other traditional procedures.
“water of life” (aqua vitae; i.e., alcohol) was probably discovered a
little earlier than nitric acid, and some physicians and a few alchemists
turned to the elixir of life as an objective. John of Rupescissa, a Catalonian
monk who wrote c. 1350, prescribed virtually the same elixirs for metal
ennoblement and for the preservation of health. His successors multiplied
elixirs, which lost their uniqueness and finally simply became new medicines,
often for specific ailments. Medical chemistry may have been conceived under
Islam, but it was born in Europe. It only awaited christening by its great
publicist, Paracelsus (1493-1541), who was the sworn enemy of the malpractices
of 16th-century medicine and a vigorous advocate of “folk” and
“chemical” remedies. By the end of the 16th century, medicine was
divided into warring camps of Paracelsians and anti-Paracelsians, and the
alchemists began to move en masse into pharmacy.
pharmacy was to lead, by a devious path, to modern chemistry, but gold making
still persisted, though methods sometimes differed. SalomonTrismosin, purported
author of the Splendor solis, or “Splendour of the Sun” (published
1598), engaged in extensive visits to alchemical adepts (a common practice) and
claimed success through “kabbalistic and magical books in the Egyptian
language.” The impression given is that many had the secret of gold making
but that most of them had acquired it from someone else and not from personal
experimentation. Illustrations, often heavily symbolic, became particularly
important, those of Splendor solis being far more complex than the text but
clearly exercising a greater appeal, even to modern students.
of chemical gold making was not conclusively disproved by scientific evidence
until the 19th century. As rational a scientist as Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727)
had thought it worthwhile to experiment with it. The official attitude toward
alchemy in the 16th to 18th century was ambivalent. On the one hand, The Art
posed a threat to the control of precious metal and was often outlawed; on the
other hand, there were obvious advantages to any sovereign who could control
gold making. In “the metropolis of alchemy,” Prague, the Holy Roman
emperors Maximilian II (reigned 1564-76) and Rudolf II (reigned 1576-1612)
proved ever-hopeful sponsors and entertained most of the leading alchemists of
was not altogether to the alchemist’s advantage. In 1595 Edward Kelley, an
English alchemist and companion of the famous astrologer, alchemist, and
mathematician John Dee, lost his life in an attempt to escape after
imprisonment by Rudolf II, and in 1603 the elector of Saxony, Christian II,
imprisoned and tortured the Scotsman Alexander Seton, who had been traveling
about Europe performing well-publicized transmutations.
situation was complicated by the fact that some alchemists were turning from
gold making not to medicine but to a quasi-religious alchemy reminiscent of the
Greek Synesius. Rudolf II made the German alchemist Michael Maier a count and
his private secretary, although Maier’s mystical and allegorical writings were,
in the words of a modern authority, “distinguished for the extraordinary obscurity
of his style” and made no claim to gold making. Neither did the German
alchemist Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560-1601), whose works have long been esteemed
for their illustrations, make such a claim.
attempts at gold making were not dead, but by the 18th century alchemy had
turned conclusively to religious aims. The rise of modern chemistry engendered
not only general skepticism as to the possibility of making gold but also
widespread dissatisfaction with the objectives of modern science, which were
viewed as too limited.
the scientists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the successors of Newton and
the great 18th-century French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier limited their
objectives in a way that amounted to a renunciation of what many had considered
the most important question of science, the relation of man to the cosmos.
Those who persisted in asking these questions came to feel an affinity with the
alchemists and sought their answers in the texts of “esoteric,” or
spiritual, alchemy (as distinct from the “exoteric” alchemy of the
gold makers), with its roots in Synesius and other late Greek alchemists of the
spiritual alchemy, or Hermetism, as its practitioners often prefer to call it,
was popularly associated with the supposititious Rosicrucian brotherhood, whose
so-called Manifestoes (author unknown; popularly ascribed to the German
theologian Johann Valentin AndreŠ) had appeared in Germany in the early 17th
century and had attracted the favorable attention not only of such reforming
alchemists as Michael Maier but also of many prominent philosophers who were
disquieted by the mechanistic character of the new science.
modern times alchemy has become a focal point for various kinds of mysticism.
The old alchemical literature continues to be scrutinized for evidence, because
alchemical doctrine is claimed to have on more than one occasion come into the
possession of man but always again been lost. Nor is its association with
chemistry considered accidental.
words of the famous 19th-century English spiritual alchemist Mary Anne Atwood,
is an universal art of vital chemistry which by fermenting the human spirit
purifies and finally dissolves it. . . . Alchemy is philosophy; it is the
philosophy, the finding of the Sophia in the mind.
most persistent goals of alchemy have been the prolongation of life and the
transmutation of base metals into gold. It appears that neither was accomplished,
unless one credits alchemy with the consequences of modern chemotherapy and the
been said that alchemy can be credited with the development of the science of
chemistry, a keystone of modern science. During the alchemical period the repertoire
of known substances was enlarged (e.g., by the addition of sal ammoniac and
saltpetre), alcohol and the mineral acids were discovered, and the basis was
laid from which modern chemistry was to rise. Historians of chemistry have been
tempted to credit alchemy with laying this base while at the same time
regarding alchemy as mostly “wrong.” It is far from clear, however,
that the basis of chemistry was in fact laid by alchemy rather than medicine.
During the crucial period of Arabic and early Latin alchemy, it appears that
innovation owed more to nascent medical chemistry than to alchemy.
those who explore the history of the science of matter, where matter is
considered on a wider basis than the modern chemist understands the term, may
find alchemy more rewarding. Numerous Hermetic writers of previous centuries
claimed that the aims of their art could yet be achieved–indeed, that the true
knowledge had been repeatedly found and repeatedly lost. This is a matter of
judgment, but it can certainly be said that the modern chemist has not attained
the goal sought by the alchemist. For those who are wedded to scientific
chemistry, alchemy can have no further interest. For those who seek the wider
goal, which was also that of the natural philosopher before the advent of
“mechanical,” “Newtonian,” or “modern” science,
the search is still on.
was a prominent feature of European alchemy during the 16th century, and such
monarchs as Rudolf II–even if they had mainly themselves to blame were not
entirely without reason in incarcerating some of their resident adepts. The
picturesqueness of this era, which also saw the birth of the modern science of
chemistry, has led many historians of chemistry to view alchemy in general as a
historians of chemistry have attempted to differentiate the good from the bad
in alchemy, citing as good the discovery of new substances and processes and
the invention of new apparatus. Some of this was certainly accomplished by
alchemists (e.g., Maria), but most of it is more justifiably ascribed to early
generally agree that alchemy had something to do with chemistry, but the modern
Hermetic holds that chemistry was the handmaiden of alchemy, not the reverse.
From this point of view the development of modern chemistry involved the
abandonment of the true goal of the art.
a new interpretation was offered in the 1920s by the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl
Jung, who, following the earlier work of the Austrian psychologist Herbert
Silberer, judged alchemical literature to be explicable in psychological terms.
Noticing the similarities between alchemical literature, particularly in its
reliance on bizarre symbolic illustrations, and the dreams and fantasies of his
patients, Jung viewed them as manifestations of a “collective
unconscious” (inherited disposition). Jung’s theory, still largely
undeveloped, remains a challenge rather than an explanation.
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2012 THE ALCHEMY OF TIME
Buddhism and the Natural Sciences
John B. Cobb, Jr.
B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School
of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process
Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the
Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a
Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ
Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying
God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The
Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An
Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United
Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.. This lecture was
delivered by Dr. Cobb at several venues in Asia during the summer of 2002. Used
by permission of the author. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Ted
and Winnie Brock.
me begin my saying that I am poorly informed with respect to the history of the
relation of Buddhism and the natural sciences as these developed in India,
China, Korea, and Japan. This is not because I question the importance of these
sciences. I have no doubt, for example, that people in these countries learned
much about the human body that Westerners are only now beginning to
appropriate. What role Buddhism played in these and other studies in either
India or China is a question that interests me, but not one that I can answer.
because of the limits of my knowledge, I am speaking only of the relation of
Buddhism to natural sciences as they developed in the West. This may be the
most important question today, because these sciences, for good or ill, have
overwhelmed most of the South and East Asian sciences. These Western sciences
are the ones that are taught in universities in India, China, Korea, and Japan.
I. The Christian History with Science
the interaction of religious tradition with Western science has been quite
different for Buddhism and for Western Christianity. For Buddhism the encounter
with this science was an encounter with a foreign system of thought. In the
West Christianity and science developed together, sometimes supporting one
another, and sometimes in enmity. Current Christianity is a product of
centuries of such interaction. In the East, although science as a foreign
import, it has generally been viewed as simply different from Buddhism. The
struggle that has left deep scars in Christianity has not been part of this
own judgment is that Buddhists have adopted too easily one of the positions to
which Christian theology has had recourse — that of different spheres for the spiritual
and natural worlds. To explain this judgment, I will speak briefly of how this
resolution came about in the West and my objections to it. I will then
elaborate my reasons for hoping for a more serious and critical engagement of
Buddhism with the natural sciences.
was a Christian culture that gave rise to modern Western science. Furthermore,
most of the founders of modern science explained their reasons for engaging in
scientific work in Christian terms. Although later scientists, who detached themselves
entirely from Christianity, preferred a history of science that ignored this
explanation, a serious historian of ideas should pay close attention.
question is why one should devote oneself to long-term, careful observation of
nature? Why should one then seek mathematical formulae explaining what one
science was, no doubt, motivated by the desire to make advantageous changes in
the world. The origin of chemistry in alchemy was of this kind. But in fact
modern science did not arise in alchemy. Much more important was astronomy,
where no one dreamed of manipulation.
is also important to note that, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries,
Western Europe was not the world center of education, of culture or of wealth.
To suppose that the scientific study of nature is a natural by-product of a
certain stage of cultural development simply does not fit the facts of world
history. The direction of intellectual efforts is typically the result of the
particular character of the culture in which these occur.
Western Europe the culture judged that knowledge of nature was a great good,
and the reason that this knowledge was so important was that it was knowledge
of God’s working. Furthermore, the conviction that God was rational underlay
the confidence that behind the apparently chaotic movements of things there lay
a rational harmony that could be mathematically described. In other words, the
deep-seated assumption that the universe is the product of an intelligent
Creator lay behind the rise of modern science.
theology that supported this view was a synthesis of Aristotle’s philosophy and
the Bible. Something very much like this synthesis had been developed by Muslim
thinkers and imported into Christian Europe. Islam made its own contribution to
the natural sciences, and if history had favored its cultures more, it might
well have been the primary context for their development. We will never know.
On the other hand, Eastern Europe, although for a thousand years it had had a
higher culture than the West, might never have developed modern science. So I
am saying neither that there is something inherent in Christianity as such that
gives birth to science nor that no other tradition provides the necessary
context. I am only saying that the form that Christianity took in Western
Europe after the assimilation of Islamic philosophy in the thirteenth century
was uniquely favorable.
fact that Western Christianity gave birth to science did not mean that the
relation was always harmonious. The most famous case of conflict was over
Galileo’s discovery of the imperfection of the heavenly bodies. He learned this
simply by looking at the moon through a more powerful telescope. Actually there
is no conflict between this discovery and the Bible. What led to conflict was
that the church had embraced Aristotelian science, which speculated that there
was a profound difference between earthly bodies and celestial ones. The latter
were supposed to be perfect. The Pope relied on the leading astronomers of the
day, and they opposed the new science of Galileo.
many scientists and historians have emphasized this incident as indicative of
the general relationship of the new science and Christianity. The facts are
quite otherwise. What is remarkable is that, during a period in which the
church persecuted Christian heretics in large numbers and Christian fought one
another in terrible wars over theological differences, no scientists lost their
lives for overturning the established worldview of Christendom. Many of the
leading scientists were deeply religious, some, clergymen. In the eighteenth
century, the founder of my own denomination, John Wesley, continued the
teaching that natural science provided a second way to the knowledge of God
alongside the Bible. In this, he was quite typical of his time.
the great majority of thoughtful Christians, at least in the Protestant world,
adopted what they understood to be the worldview of science and adapted
Christian teaching to that. The main issue in the eighteenth century was
whether the creation was so perfect that God never intervened in it, or there
were occasions in which God worked miracles. But this was an argument about how
to adapt Christian belief to science, not between science and faith.
in Wesley’s time there were scientists and philosophers who questioned the
positive connection between science and faith. But it was only in the latter
part of the nineteenth century that science and theology came into a conflict
of socially serious importance. This was over the doctrine of evolution.
Heretofore, most people, including most scientists, supposed that the world
came into being in more or less its present form. The more complexities science
discovered in the world, the more one marveled at the wisdom and power of the
Creator. But evolutionary theory proposed that there was an explanation for all
this complexity that did not involve any creative act. The present astonishing
order was the outgrowth of natural, purposeless processes.
this was in sharp conflict with a literal reading of the Bible, and this was in
itself disturbing. But the church had dealt with that kind of conflict before.
From ancient times, the literal reading was often subordinated to others.
Protestantism recovered an emphasis on the literal reading, but not in the
sense of contemporary Fundamentalism. That movement arose in reaction to more
liberal Christian responses to evolutionary theory in the early part of the
deeper problem was that the worldview that society and culture had accepted as
scientific was mechanistic. Hence it was thought that science required that the
natural world be understood as nothing more than matter in motion. From this
world, human beings had, understandably, exempted themselves. The worldview
that resulted from this stratagem was probably the most dualistic in all of
history. Its advantage was that it secured to human beings freedom and
responsibility and value. It undergirded the development of the doctrine of
theory destroyed this dualistic solution to the problem brought about by the
scientific worldview. Now science was invading this privileged sanctuary. It
was claiming, in principle, that human beings are part of the mechanical world
system, that they can be explained like everything else in terms of matter in
point here is that evolutionary theory, developed in the context of a
mechanistic worldview, was a real threat to faith. We should not regard those
who rejected it as simply ignorant and benighted. To this day the acceptance of
the standard form of evolutionary theory has profoundly negative consequences.
response was Fundamentalism. The authority of the Bible, read quite
straightforwardly, supersedes the authority of empirical evidence and
scientific theory. The theory of evolution is simply wrong.
Christians could not follow that route. A second response was to develop a
different worldview in which Christians could both affirm the empirical evidence
for evolution and deny that it has the reductionistic implications given it by
the mechanistic worldview. Evolution can then be understood as calling forth a
new, nonmaterialistic naturalism. It can also be understood as showing us the
way God creates, so that the emphasis could shift from the one creative act in
the past to the continuing creativity of God in the present. This sort of view
played a considerable role in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. The process theology that I represent is one form of this response.
The most famous recent proponent was Teilhard de Chardin.
my point of view, it is unfortunate that a third response, which followed the
lead of Immanuel Kant, became the most widespread. Kant was responding to the
earlier challenge of David Hume, who showed that the underlying assumptions of
both science and theology were not supportable empirically. The focus here was
causality. A mechanistic view of nature presupposed causes as necessary
relations. Event A causes event B to happen. The idea of creation
asserts that God is the cause of the world. Hume showed that sense
experience gives us no access to causes of this kind. Kant argued that
empirical experience in itself tells us nothing about the world, even the
phenomenal world. We know this only as it is organized by the human mind. The
mind imposes causal, as well as spatio-temporal relations upon it. But when we
come to understanding the human mind and human behavior, we apply wholly
dualism of the phenomena, on the one side, and Geist, on the other, superseded
the Cartesian dualism of matter and mind for most German intellectual work. It
was quite influential in the English-speaking world as well. It lent itself to
the solution of the crisis introduced by evolutionary theory. One could assert
that for science mechanistic evolutionary theory is true, and that human beings
are fully part of the evolved world. But for the humanities, including
theology, this understanding is irrelevant. These proceed as if human existence
is of an entirely different order. We have now the great divide within the
university between the sciences and the humanities and a profoundly split
consciousness throughout Western culture.
the twentieth century, scientists discovered many things that did not fit the
mechanistic worldview. Einstein’s relativity theory broke with it in important
ways. The whole idea of matter gave way progressively to that of energy.
Quantum theory was driven into extreme paradoxes when it tried to explain
itself in mechanistic terms.
public has been fascinated by these breaks with traditional Western science and
has responded enthusiastically to the writings of those scientists who have
come up with new views. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of scientists
have accepted the Kantian dualism, although their work is not now, as Kant
thought, to interpret nature in mechanistic terms. They have given up the
effort to understand. Their task is to develop mathematical formulae that enable
them to predict the results of experiments. On the other side, humanists
develop hermeneutical methods for the interpretation of documents with no
regard for scientific thought. Philosophers, analogously, have given up the
synthetic task that was theirs so long. They are now satisfied with analysis,
phenomenological description, or deconstruction. The work of rethinking the
world as inclusive of both nature and human beings in the light of the best
information available is largely excluded from the universities.
II. The Buddhist History with Science
has a very different relation to natural science. There is little in Buddhism
to encourage people to devote their lives to scientific experiment or to
seeking the laws of nature. Buddhists are more likely to attend to nature in
its concrete particularity than to seek abstract universal principles. The
knowledge to be gained by scientific study would not be expected to advance the
movement toward enlightenment.
the other hand, Buddhism is free from those attachments that have led
Christians to resist the acceptance of scientific findings. There is no
attachment to a traditional cosmology that is threatened by scientific advance,
or at least, any such attachment would fall immediately under Buddhist critique.
There is no doctrine of creation that is undercut by new ways of understanding
how the world came into being. There is no claim to a special status of human
beings that is weakened by evolutionary theory.
this, Buddhists have sometimes asserted superiority over Christianity. The
enlightenment to which they point is not vulnerable to new empirical findings
or scientific theories. It is a matter of experience that is self-verifying.
one sense this is true. Buddhism is not bound up with doctrines of the sort
that have led Christians into conflict with science. It does not affirm a God
whose existence is problematic, so that belief requires the support of
arguments whose foundations are vulnerable to scientific advance. The belief in
human freedom, so central to Christianity, is not thematically developed in
Buddhism. One attraction of Buddhism to Christians since the latter part of the
nineteenth century has been this freedom from controversial doctrines.
as I see it, Buddhist discourse is not, in fact, consistent with every possible
worldview. Quite the contrary. Buddhism would make no sense if the world were
in fact nothing but matter in motion. A science formulated in those terms may
not threaten Buddhism in its specifics, but it contradicts Buddhism
fundamentally and generally. Sociologically and psychologically, one who is
convinced of the truth of the modern scientific worldview will have no interest
in listening to Buddhist discourse or in pursuing Buddhist enlightenment. Buddhists
have as much reason as Christians to oppose this worldview.
they have an additional basis for opposition. They can appeal to newer
developments in physics as supporting a worldview to which they came
independently. Especially the phenomena of quanta can be more intelligibly
understood if we adopt the view of pratitya samutpada.
advantage of Buddhism in the interpretation of contemporary scientific findings
has been widely noticed. It has certainly increased interest in Buddhism in the
West. But on the whole the scientists who note this connection are not
sophisticated in their understanding of Buddhism and in fact make little use of
this new way of thinking in their continuing work.
hope for more. I am also very open to learning from you of contemporary
physicists in Japan who are engaged in reconstructing physics on the lines
suggested by Buddhism. I have heard occasionally of such work, but this program
seems not to have gone very far.
III. Obstacles to Buddhist Involvement
is my suspicion that another Buddhist teaching inhibits such a program.
Buddhists are often quite suspicious of the ability of language to avoid
misleading us. They are willing to employ language as “skillful
means”, but the truth to which they point still eludes language.
develop science we must formulate concepts and theories. One may, in fact
should, recognize that concepts and theories are subject to correction, but the
goal is better concepts and theories. Buddhists rightly emphasize that we
should not attach ourselves to concepts and theories. But too strong an
emphasis here on nonattachment can reduce the interest in generating new
concepts and new theories. Without these, there will be no progress in science
and specifically now, no breaking of the power of the deeply entrenched
mechanistic worldview. This will give way only as it is shown that there is
another way to think about nature that explains all that has been previously
explained mechanistically and more besides. If Buddhism could give a greater spiritual
value to the understanding of the world, its potential contribution to the
progress of science and of a scientifically-informed worldview might be
would it take to persuade Buddhists that this kind of involvement in an
intellectual enterprise is truly important? I don’t know. As far as I can tell,
understanding alone is not sufficiently important in Buddhist tradition to call
forth such efforts. The chances may be better with compassion. But why would
compassion call one to devote one’s life to transforming science and the
answer, I believe, is that the inherited Western worldview has done, and is
doing, great harm to human beings and the other creatures with which we share
the planet. Viewing nature as a machine has led human beings to treat it that
way. We are moving toward a crisis of global proportions, and our mechanistic
vision deters us from taking the drastic steps needed to change direction. When
human beings, or some human beings, are treated as part of this mechanistic
world, they are terribly exploited. This has been true in my own country of
much of the treatment of people of other races, especially Native Americans and
Africans. It still leads to lack of sensitivity to the underclass and to
peoples in other parts of the world, especially the poor. We too often view
them as “others” rather than in terms of our kinship and
interconnectedness. To change our basic way of perceiving the natural world and
all its human inhabitants is an urgent expression of compassion.
after writing this I received a message from the Institute of Science in
Society, with its headquarters in England. I was pleased to find that a similar
analysis of the harm done by this worldview is gaining more institutional
expression. Listen to a few paragraphs of the ISIS communication.
new trade-related intellectual properties regime in industrialised nations is
an unprecedented privatisation of knowledge, which has also encouraged the
biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and resources on a global scale. This regime
is being imposed on the rest of the world through the World Trade Organisation,
as part of a relentless drive towards economic globalisation.
globalisation is widely acknowledged to be the major cause of poverty, social
disintegration and environmental degradation over the past decades. At the same
time, it is obstructing any attempt to reverse the trends and to implement a
global agenda for sustainability.
thousand gathered in Porto Alegre in February at the Second World Social Forum
to voice unanimous opposition to economic globalisation and to call for
alternative models of world governance and finance.
no one is targeting the predominant, reductionist knowledge system of the west,
that has provided the intellectual impetus for globalisation as well as the
instruments of destruction and oppression. It has also marginalised indigenous
knowledge systems and driven countless to extinction.
western science itself is undergoing a profound paradigm change towards an
organic perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems
around the world. We have all the means to bring a truly sustainable and
equitable world into being, only the political will, and the appropriate
vision, is missing. We need some means to help focus attention on how that
could be done, and to underpin a new model of world governance and finance.
however, there may be a barrier in Buddhist teaching to applying compassion to
this kind of task. In talking with Buddhists, I find a certain ambivalence as
to the expression of compassion. Some say that compassion always expresses
itself in seeking the enlightenment of others. If so, improving social and
cultural conditions is not an appropriate expression of compassion. Others
believe that relief of suffering of any kind, even if it does not lead toward
enlightenment, is a proper expression of compassion. But even for these, it
often seems that the models of compassionate action are typically spontaneous
responses to immediately apparent suffering. For those who think in this way,
changing the structures of thought and perception built into so much of our
science would be too indirect a contribution to the relief of suffering to be a
true expression of Buddhist compassion.
I believe many Buddhists recognize that social systems cause much of the
suffering in the world and that these social systems are grounded in conceptual
systems. Changing these conceptual systems may be a particularly important
contribution, in the long run, to the relief of suffering. If Buddhists can
think in this way, their compassion can draw them into the work of critique and
reconstruction of the worldview that still underlies most of Western thinking.
Since Western social and natural sciences shape the thinking of many Easterners
today as well, the problem is not limited to the West.
IV. Potential Buddhist Contributions
Buddhists were motivated to enter vigorously into the discussion, they could
contribute a great deal. The ISIS refers to the emergence of more organic
thinking in Western science. This is certainly progress. Organisms are
interactive and are centers of creative activity. To understand the world as
composed of organisms rather than mechanisms could affect public policy for the
better, as well as the formulation of scientific theory.
the organismic thinking that dominated Medieval understanding in the West also
had its limits. It supported a hierarchical vision of society that offered
little freedom to individuals. In any case, there were good reasons to turn
from it in the pursuit of a more adequate scientific account.
Buddhism offers goes beyond a model of organisms. It accents nonduality and the
absence of substance. This allows for the reality of the individual, but not
for individuals apart from others. The individuals involved have no permanence;
they are continuously passing away. They are what they are by virtue of what
all other individuals are. All things interpenetrate.
is much in quantum theory today that points in the direction of this vision of
reality. It is far more appropriate to the evidence than the substantialist,
materialist models that still influence the formulations. As noted above, this
has been widely recognized. Yet the needed change has not occurred. The Western
mind has not succeeded in finding the formulations it needs.
the way in which quantum theory is still talked about and developed. In the
first place, it is commonly called “quantum mechanics,” despite the
nonmechanical character of the events with which it deals. It still speaks
frequently of “particles”, although that to which it refers cannot
have the characteristics that term connotes. Alternately it speaks of
“waves”, although the idea of a wave implies a substantial medium,
such as water or air, and it has long been established that no such substantial
medium underlies quantum phenomena.
other words, there is now considerable evidence from science that Buddhists are
correct, but scientists do not know how to think about the kind of world that
Buddhists have been affirming for more than two millennia. Buddhists should be
able to interpret the data in terms of a vision of pratitya samutpada.
This should provide a far more coherent vision.
recently scientists were in quest of such a vision. It was their inability to
attain it in the twentieth century that drove them to the kind of irrationalism
that now characterizes much of science. Scientists often say that they are no
longer trying to understand nature; they seek only to make predictions that
they can experimentally check. This provides the knowledge needed for
technology to develop. What the real world is like, or even whether there is
any such world apart from our ideas or language about it are, for some
scientists, now irrelevant questions.
theoretical result of this indifference to what is real is sometimes an extreme
dualism. It is supposed that there is the world of thought or language, and
there is the world of nature. In this dualistic view, how they are related, or
whether they are related at all does not matter. At other times, the result is
an extreme idealism. It is supposed that the world of language is the only
world there is. We are told that there can be no experience of reality other
than of language.
am not sure that anyone ever believes these theoretical results. But because
sophisticated people accept these theories as the best available, they
influence the direction of inquiry and thereby of policy. They do great harm.
If taken with full seriousness they would direct those who believe them away
from any effort to attain Buddhist enlightenment.
abandonment of the intellectual task of understanding the world is as
detrimental to society as was the mechanistic view that it partly replaced.
Buddhists could help greatly to restore intelligibility to science. It is my
conviction that science, as well as society as a whole, would gain by this
may seem strange to appeal to Buddhism to provide intelligibility. Buddhism has
long taught us not to put trust in concepts and conceptual understanding. It
recognized that the vision it offered worked against the tendency of concepts
to objectify, to reify, to rigidify, and to separate. Concepts typically
encourage the dualism of subject and object rather than the nondual vision that
comes closer to the truth. But in fact in the process of criticizing concepts
and attachment to them, Buddhists have developed new concepts that would be far
more helpful than the old ones in formulating scientific theories. There is a
tremendous opportunity here.
IV. A Whiteheadian Postscript
conviction that the continuing influence of substantialist, materialist,
mechanistic, reductionist thinking blocks a movement toward understanding comes
from the influence of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. He struggled
against that kind of thinking and developed a process-relational vision that
has much in common with Buddhist thought. He did not completely free himself
from the thinking against which he struggled, and his followers have tended in
part to fall back into it. I have long thought that if Buddhists would engage
in this effort with us, we could achieve still more consistent and accurate
did not himself develop a quantum theory. However, David Bohm and Basil Hiley
have recently formulated a quantum theory congenial to his thought. It provides
a very different way of thinking of the quantum world than the traditional
models have offered. Bohm was deeply influenced by Indian thought of a sort
that was more Buddhist than Hindu. This indicates the kinds of contributions
that Buddhism has already made to science and how much remains to be done.
study of Whitehead also suggests to me that Buddhists could learn from this
engagement. Although profound, and I believe basically true, most Buddhist
teaching is formulated in images that remain imprecise. They leave many
important questions unanswered. When one struggles with the task of explaining
experimental data in terms of these images, greater precision necessarily
develops. It is my belief that this greater precision will enrich Buddhist
might respond that this kind of understanding is unimportant to Buddhism, that
precision is needed is only where enlightenment is at stake. If that is the
Buddhist view, I must respectfully disagree. However desirable and important
enlightenment may be, the survival of a livable earth for our descendants is
also desirable and important. Perhaps if all individuals attained enlightenment
the social and economic problems would take care of themselves. But we cannot
afford to wait until that happens before engaging the destructive forces in the
world. I believe these include the worldview that is so closely connected with
most scientific thinking.
the past few decades there has emerged a movement of socially-engaged
Buddhists. In part this was a response to Christian criticism. Sulak Sivaraksa
of Thailand has been the primary leader of this group, and it may be better
rooted in Thai Buddhism than in some other forms. Nevertheless, it has gained a
following in the United States among Buddhists of a variety of backgrounds,
especially among Euro-American converts. My experience with socially-engaged
Buddhists has made me very enthusiastic. There is no group of Christians in
whose judgment and commitment I have greater, or perhaps even equal,
confidence. For one thing, they have integrated ecological thinking into their
social thought much better than have most Christians. In addition, I think that
in many cases their meditational practice has led to fuller personal
integration around basic commitments.
primary focus of this movement is, of course, social analysis and action.
Nevertheless, some of these Buddhists are also engaged in thinking in the
physical sciences, especially ecology. There is here a promising beginning of
the engagement for which I hope and from which the world can expect much.
world today is in bondage to the quest of wealth, and it accepts mainstream
economic thought as its theology. This economic thought models itself on
physics, unfortunately the physics of the nineteenth century. It treats human
beings as isolated substances. Both the goal of wealth and this atomistic
understanding of human beings are in radical contradiction with Buddhist
teaching. Unfortunately, Buddhist habits of relative passivity toward authority
are such that I do not hear the strong voice of protest that should come from
this community. I hope that new habits of engagement with the sciences will
characterize the next generation.