A Buddhist look at trends in scientific development


P. A. Payutto

Translated by Bruce Evans





Translator's Foreword



1. Science and Technology
    Two kinds of technology
    The place of ethics
    Science and technology cannot be separated
    Reaching the limits and finding no answer
    Behind the prosperity ...

2. Religion and Science
    From common beginnings to separation
    A clarity that is not free of confusion
    Towards a unity of science and religion
    Too little, too late
    Not above blunders

3. Science and Buddhism: A meeting or a parting?
    The natural religions: understanding nature through wisdom
    Good and evil
    The Law of Kamma -- scientific morality
    The question of free will

4. The Role of Faith in Science and Buddhism
    Man-centered versus self-centered
    Differences in methods

5. Approaching the Frontiers of Mind
    The material world: science's unfinished business
    Ethics: a truth awaiting verification
    "What is" versus "what should be"
    True religion is the foundation of science
    Effect of values on scientific research

6. Future Directions
    Too little
    Too late
    Encouraging constructive technology



Translator's Foreword


When transmitting any set of ideas from one culture to another, we are confronted not only with a difference of language, but a disparity of backgrounds and cultural values. This is particularly so when the ideas stem from an examination of one culture through the eyes of another. This book is one such examination: a collection of reflections and suggestions on a traditionally Western domain -- science -- from a traditionally Eastern point of view -- that of a Buddhist monk.

    Many of the ideas and concepts presented here may seem strange to the Western reader uninitiated into traditional Buddhist thinking, which necessitates some initial guidance. I advise the reader to open up to a new set of values -- not necessarily agreeing with or denying them, but trying to see the meaning within them.

    The contents of the book are taken from the National Science Day Lecture given by Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto at the Faculty of Science, Chiang Mai University, in August 1991, which was recorded and later printed in the Thai language as Buddhasasana ny Thana Pen Rahk Than Korng Wityasaht (published by the Science Faculty, Chiang Mai University, 1992). For this third revised edition I would like to express my thanks to Venerable Jayasaro Bhikkhu, who gave many helpful editorial suggestions. They have helped to produce a more polished product than the first edition, which was somewhat rushed.

    It may be helpful to appreciate the vast disparity between the cultural context in which the talk was given and that in which the book will be received. The talks were given at one of Thailand's major universities to an audience of highly educated, modernized Thais. Like many people in modern times, many members of the audience had drifted away from their native religion, Buddhism, because of the unscientific stigma attached to religion from the West. Venerable Payutto takes the position of a concerned father chiding his children, pointing out to them the great value of that which they have left behind. In the process he gives us as Westerners some invaluable insights into our own ways of thinking and confronts our whole cultural development with questions that, particularly at this time, demand answers.

    Essentially, then, the talk was given to Thai Buddhists. Now, in book form, it is being presented to Westerners. I hope the reader will be open and at the same time discerning, taking heed of those teachings which are relevant to our situation (not just agreeing with those that we like or disagreeing with those that we don't) and making a sincere effort to benefit from them. In the final analysis, the teachings lead only to benefit, not to harm. The question is, are we ready to benefit from them?

Bruce Evans      





In this modern, scientific age  the sciences and technology have enjoyed remarkable progress, leading to the rapid and exciting changes we see around us. One of the most important factors in this progress is the expertise resulting from specialization, which has enabled human beings to utilize profound and highly detailed stores of knowledge. This knowledge has in turn been used to answer mankind's needs on a practical level, which is a concrete and tangible fruit of scientific research. Science is at the vanguard of this specialized approach to research, and the exciting developments of technology are a concrete manifestation of it.

    Before embarking on this quest for specialization, human beings lived surrounded by innumerable natural forces, all of which had a great effect on their lives. Human beings were ignorant of the causes for these natural phenomena, how they affected their lives, or how they were related to each other -- all of nature was a mysterious enigma.

    In order to know and understand the natural world, human beings were motivated to begin searching for answers, with a variety of different people searching in a variety of ways, amassing knowledge in ever-increasing detail. But the more they learned, the more there was to learn, and the search for knowledge went deeper and deeper into specialized channels. The world has long been absorbed in this specialized search for knowledge and delighting in the knowledge found. Now we find ourselves immersed in a mass of minutiae, and we tend to think, speak, act and try to solve problems in a specialized way.

    We seem to have forgotten that the original objective of this meticulous and compartmentalized search for knowledge was an understanding of the relationship which natural phenomena have on human life, both from a specialized perspective and from a holistic one. With researchers drowning in the data of their own isolated fields of research, human knowledge becomes fragmented and disjointed. We have till now concerned ourselves mainly with the wonders that all this knowledge has enabled us to produce, to the neglect of the fundamental problems with which humanity is still faced.

    Ultimately, an impasse has been reached, and we are beginning to see warning signals. This impasse can be seen on two levels:

    1. In the search for knowledge: some of the branches of learning, especially physics, which is leading the race for knowledge, seem to have reached the limits that depth and detail can take them. They are incapable of understanding the basic truths of nature, because such an understanding demands an awareness of other fields of learning. This has forced researchers to look for ways to transcend their self-imposed specialized limitations and integrate their knowledge with other fields. At the very least, they are beginning to realize that research in any one specialized field will not lead to realization of the truth.

    2. In the application of knowledge: the practical application of knowledge has been geared mostly to responding to human needs and desires. This has led to many problems, which the funnel vision arising from specialization prevented us from foreseeing. These problems are becoming increasingly urgent, even threatening the destruction of the human race. The most obvious and urgent of them is the destruction of the environment, which is forcing us to search for a solution based on a more integrated approach to knowledge.

    One of the most important indications of the extent to which the specialized approach to knowledge has developed is the human ability to synthesize both knowledge and new products. Such developments have caused many scientists to delude themselves into believing that they have penetrated reality and conquered nature.

    But in fact such knowledge of causal factors and relationships is still limited to the confines of specialization. Beyond these confines, in the whole natural order, such knowledge is inadequate, and the practical application of it leads to problems. It has led to an impasse, one that has awakened humanity to its limitations.The realization of this impasse and its implications is itself one of the most recent advances of research.

    From this realization and awareness of the insufficiency of human knowledge, movements have begun to try to integrate the knowledge of these various specialized fields and arrive at a more holistic understanding of the natural order, one which includes both mankind and the natural environment, both the physical world and the mental. This step beyond the confines of specialization and the attempts to integrate diverse bodies of knowledge is a change in direction for mankind, one which has been very difficult to make.

    In the context of a holistic understanding of the natural order, the human position within it, and the development of a beneficial human society, the extremely detailed knowledge of specialization has in effect led nowhere, and human beings are still very much in the dark. Science, as the major actor in this scenario, the leader of the quest for knowledge and specialization, is in a most opportune position to help the world in this regard, by integrating its research and knowledge with other fields of learning in order to arrive at a more holistic understanding of the natural order.

    That the Science Faculty of Chiang Mai University invited me to present a lecture, which is the source material for this book, and organized the printing of editions of the book in both Thai and English, is a beginning in this direction. It is a gesture of open-mindedness and willingness to consider ideas about the field of science in the eyes of a field which is traditionally regarded as its direct opposite -- religion.

    It is worth mentioning here that Buddhism has never seen science as an antagonist. Buddhism welcomes scientific knowledge, recognizing it as another branch of learning about the natural order. Many Buddhists are in fact hopeful that the truths unearthed by science will serve to support and verify the timeless teachings given by the Buddha thousands of years ago. At the very least scientific knowledge may reveal the truths of the physical world, which can only help to improve our understanding of life and mankind's place in the natural order, especially when such knowledge is incorporated with knowledge about the mental world or human world as explained through the teachings of Buddhism.

    From the perspective of academic research, this book represents a step toward a more integrated approach to academic learning, broadening the fields of research by recognizing that religion is one branch of the humanities. It is not only academic learning which stands to gain, but human civilization, society and the whole human race.

    I would like to extend my appreciation to Ajahn Chatchawal Poonpun, of the Science Faculty of Chiang Mai University, who diligently took upon himself the task of helping the Science Faculty realize its objective, and also saw to the subsequent extension of that first initiative into the printed page. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Khun Yongyuth Dhanapura, the Director of the Buddhadhamma Foundation, who tirelessly dedicates himself to the task of spreading the Buddha's teachings.

    I would like to express my thanks to Venerable Phra Kru Palat Insorn (Cintapa˝˝o) who has given of his time and energy in the preparation through the Desk Top Publishing process of the original Thai text, which was the source from which the English translation was taken.

    Last but not least, I would like to extend my appreciation to Bruce Evans, who brought to the English translation of the Thai book not only a fluency in both the Thai and English languages, but an understanding of the Buddha's teachings and a dedication to the work, resulting in this admirable English version of the talk in book form. For any inaccuracies which may be remaining in the text, I myself take responsibility.

Bhikkhu P.A. Payutto      
November 30,1993      


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