Toward a Buddhist Philosophy of Science
Science is the cornerstone of the European-American culture that
has transformed the entire globe over the last few centuries.
Buddhism is a deeply rooted religious tradition of Asia, now emerging as a powerful global voice.
Science and Buddhism
both address the nature of human experience, but
in quite different ways.
Science elaborates and refines a collection of interconnected
theories, facts, procedures, and equipment, constituting
an ever more powerful tool for working with and in the world.
Buddhism focusses more on the mind and how our way of thinking
affects our experience.
Both science and Buddhism show how everyday appearances arise from underlying structures.
By understanding these structures one gains new freedom, to choose among alternatives by working effectively with the cause and effect relations.
Science has given us great power to understand and change the world.
But this power has also let us create new and bigger problems for ourselves.
Without examining how the dynamics of mind underlies our experience, it might seem that the evolutionary path of
science and technology is a matter beyond our choice or responsibility.
But the profound insights of Buddhism reveal that our perceptions and actions arise in habitual self-reinforcing cycles, and the
methods taught in the Buddhist tradition enable us to intervene in these cycles.
Science and technology in some form or other, which is to say
some way of thinking about and working with the world, are a fundamental dimension of human existence.
Modern science has blossomed by driving the refinement of ideas
through public debate grounded in clear evidence.
Buddhism shows the dynamics underlying any such evolving pattern of experience, and provides tools to open these patterns to
boundless freedom and joy.
Here I explore some dimensions of science where Buddhism might be able to open new possibilities.
I have also started
for reflections on more concrete topics and to provide space for discussion:
What is Buddhism?
What is Science?
- Analyzing Experience
Varieties of Experience
- The Structure of Analysis
Breaking and Fixing
Methods and Results
Chaos and Friction in Theory Evolution
A Middle Way for Science
Acting and Accepting
- Evolution (Nov 2010)
This essay is being written by
The picture at the top of this page is a traditional portrait of Thang-tong Gyalpo (pronounced "Tangdong Gyalpo"), who lived from 1385 to 1509.
The picture was painted by Thinley Chojor of Woodstock, New York.
Thang-tong Gyalpo was a great Buddhist master and also a pioneering civil engineer.
He is said to have built 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Tibet, several of which are still in use;
therefore he is portrayed holding a section of iron chain in his
I have put his portrait at the head of this essay to demonstrate that profound Buddhist realization is entirely compatible with
advanced technological achievement.
In fact the point of Buddhist practise, at least in the Mahayana traditions, is to become able to help others more effectively by all possible means, including feats of engineering, medicine, etc.
In addition to his engineering feats, Thang-tong Gyalpo founded the Ace Lhamo operatic tradition of Tibet.
He is also a principle lineage Lama of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
Discussion or mention of Thang-tong Gyalpo can be found in:
Crystal Mirror VI
One page biography with full page line drawing.
Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen
Homage to Khyab Je Kalu Rinpoche
(Kagyu Droden Kunchab 1992).
Shows position in Shangpa Kagyu lineage.
Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom
(Aris & Phillips 1979).
Four page discussion of biographic materials, under heading
"lCags-zam-pa" (iron bridge builder)
Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives: A Study of Pemalingpa (1450-1521) and the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706)
(Kegan Paul 1989)
The Tibet Guide
Gyurme Dorje (ed.),
Tibet Handbook: with Bhutan
(Passport Books 1996)
The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History
Two page biography with line drawing.
Tibet: Abode of the Gods, Pearl of the Motherland
(Pacific View Press 1997)
facing page 159 is a marvelous photograph of an "ancient iron bridge spanning the Namling River" which must be one of Thang-tong Gyalpo's bridges.
Chö Yang: The Voice of Tibetan Religion and Culture
(Year of Tibet Edition).
One page on Thang-tong Gyalpo's founding of the Tibetan operatic tradition.
"The Literary Traditions of Thang-stong rGyal-po: A Study of Visionary Buddhism in Tibet",
PhD Diss. Berkeley 1981
"Thang-stong rGyal-po, Father of the Tibetan Drama Tradition: The Bodhisattva as Artist",
Jamyang Norbu (ed.),
Zlos-Gar: Performing Traditions of Tibet
(Library of Tibetan Works and Archives 1986)
- from p. 93:
"I (want) all sentient beings ... to enjoy the glory of a good life and to be established on the high level of the auspicious insurpassible enlightenment.
Therefore I will labor with earth, stone, and wood.
I will build as many chapels and images as possible in key spots beneficial to the people of this Land of Snow, in lonely places to protect against robbers and demon bandits, and in the narrow paths and waterways where gods, ghosts, and men travel.
And I will build ferries and precious firm iron bridges on all the great rivers.
Thus this auspicious circumstance is leading towards so much happiness for all beings."
"Genre, Authorship, and Transmission in Visionary Buddhism: The
Literary Traditions of Thang-stong rGyal-po",
in Steven D. Goodman and Ronald M. Davidson (eds.)
Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation
Apparitions of the Self:
The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary
The Fifteenth Karmapa Kakhyab Dorje,
A Continuous Rain to Benefit Beings
(Kagyu Kunkhyab Chuling)
The Words of My Perfect Teacher
High Peaks, Pure Earth: Collected Writings on Tibetan History and Culture
The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogi
Matthieu Ricard (trans.),
Lhamo: Opera from the Roof of the World
About five pages on Thang-tong Gyalpo and the beginning of the
The Twelfth Tai Situ Rinpoche,
Relative World, Ultimate Mind
David Snellgrove and Hugh Richardson,
A Cultural History of Tibet
(Praeger 1968, reprint Prajna 1980)
The Life and Teachings of the Tibetan Saint Thang-stong rgyal-po, "King of the Empty Plain"
(Univ. Washington, Master's thesis, 1980)
King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron-Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo
(Snow Lion 2007)
R. A. Stein,
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche,
Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of the Nyingma School of Buddhism
Early Temples of Central Tibet
pp. 123-136 discusses Riwoche Stupa,
a great construction project of Thang-tong Gyalpo,
including several interior and exterior photographs.
Vitali's book includes a two page excerpt from the traditional
biography of Thang-tong Gyalpo.
The Kingdoms of Gu.ge Pu.hrang: According to mNga'.ris rgyal.rabs by Gu.ge mkhan.chen Ngag.dbang grags.pa
(Tho.ling gtsug.lag.khang.lo.gcig.stong 'khor.ba'i rjes.dran.mdzad sgo'i go.sgrig tshogs.chung 1996)
Ngawang Zangpo (trans.),
Jamgon Kongtrul's Retreat Manual
(Snow Lion 1994)