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 a blog for reflections on more concrete topics and to provide space for discussion:

  1. What is Buddhism?
  2. What is Science?
  3. Analyzing Experience
    1. Impermanence
    2. Causation
    3. Compositionality
    4. Varieties of Experience
  4. The Structure of Analysis
    1. Breaking and Fixing
    2. Methods and Results
    3. Chaos and Friction in Theory Evolution
  5. A Middle Way for Science
  6. Acting and Accepting (Sept 2000)
  7. Beyond Civilization (Jan 2001)
  8. Money (Jan 2008)
  9. Evolution (Nov 2010)
  10. Fragments
  11. Resources
    1. Buddhism
    2. Philosophy
    3. Cognitive Dynamics
    4. Science
    5. Software
    6. Mathematics
    7. History

This essay is being written by Jim Kukula.

Thang-tong Gyalpo

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 right hand. 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: