BUDDHISM AND SCIENCE
PART 2 -- LIFE SCIENCES
Editorial Note: This unpublished article was written by Grandmaster Wong more than 20 years ago in the 1980s (in 2016).
Impermanence of Organisms
Buddhist wisdom reveals many concepts that are now accepted in physics and astronomy. Besides the physical sciences, the latest discoveries in the life sciences also confirm what the Buddha has taught, even though life scientists in general are surprisingly uncomfortable with such terms like mind and consciousness which are frequently used in Buddhism, and prefer objective terms like brain and nervous functions. Yet, the eminent biologist E. J. Ambrose says:
A most notable feature of living organism, whether composed of single cells as in bacteria or of assembles of diverse cell types as in mammals, is that molecules are continuously entering organisms from the environment, while other simple and closely related molecules are continuously being eliminated from the cells. This flow of matter through the organism is a universal phenomenon observed in all life: the more active, or as we say vital, are the functions of the organism, the more rapidly will the flow of matter take place through the cells. So the organism has no material permanence, no permanence in the physical sense as we should apply the term in the inorganic world. It is the pattern which has permanence in the living organism.
If an organism has no physical permanence, how then does it reproduce? Ambrose continues:
But not only is the patterns preserved throughout the life of the individual cell or organism while matter flows steadily through it, but the organism is also capable of implanting its pattern on other matter and so reproducing itself.
Biologists call this rebirth linkage the transference of information. Indeed some biologists today, like Feinberg and Shapiro, now define life not on the basis of substance or even energy, but on a measure of information.
In simple words, the latest discoveries of biologists are that a living organism, including man, is materially impermanent, what we formerly thought was his permanent physical body is a collection of matter continuously flowing in and out of this body, and that the organism is able to maintain its general pattern as well as to reproduce the same pattern is because it possesses information.
This of course is what Buddhism has been teaching since ancient time, except it is more profound, and use terms like skandhas and mind instead of matter and information. The Buddha's explanation of rebirth (not just birth, because every being lived before he was born) is both informative and fascinating. Very briefly, rebirth occurs because of the ripening of karma, where karma acts as the field, consciousness as the seed, and the rebirth thought as moisture.
Another exciting concept that may result in an important biological break-through, but which has been taught by the Buddha since long ago, is Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenetic field. Sheldrake observed that if a group of rats were taught some tricks, other rats which had neither contact with nor were descended from the former rats, would learn the same tricks faster, even if the rats were in different continents. Numerous experiments, including some involving humans, confirmed this phenomenon in other species. Sheldrake proposes that this is because of the presence of a morphogenetic field shared by members of the same species. This morphogenetic field, which exists across time and space, is built up from collective memory over millennia.
Lyall Watson suggests the same concept with his hundredth monkey effect, whereby he mentioned that when many monkeys had learnt to wash sand-covered potatoes in the sea instead of picking out the sand tediously, other monkeys even in other parts of the globe began doing the same thing without being taught or told! These hundredth monkey effect and morphogenetic field are similar to the alaya consciousness in Buddhism. Besides suggesting an explanation for psychic abilities like telepathy, clairvoyance and looking into the past, more importantly the concept of morphogenetic field gives a spiritual dimension to the hitherto mechanistic attitude of biologists and other scientists.
The Brain or the Mind
Many neuro-scientists are also mechanistic, for instance, believing that the mind does not exist and is merely a convenient term describing the function of the brain. For example, Drake said:
The mind is the brain. In using the term "mind" we are conceiving these cerebral events as they are on the inside, so to speak: i.e. we are thinking of their substance. When we use the term "brain" we are looking at them from the outside, through our sense organs.
Yet, the greatest of neuro-surgeons, like Sir Charles Sherington, Wilder Penfield and Sir John Eccles, all of whom won the Nobel Prize in neurophysiology, say that the mind is distinctly different from the brain. Penfield explains that the mind is the controlling factor; the brain is a mechanism carrying out the instructions from the mind:
The mind is aware of what is going on. The mind reasons and makes new decisions. It understands. It acts as though endowed with an energy of its own. It can make decision and put them into effect by calling upon various brain mechanisms. It does this by activating neurone mechanisms.
Although psychology, unlike neurology, is suppose to be a study of the mind, surprisingly psychologists in their attempt to be objective like the physical sciences, have generally alienated the mind in favour of the brain, despite the deeply religious study of consciousness by William James, who is often considered to be the father of modern psychology. Psychologists of the behaviorist tradition regard man like a machine, whose behaviour is determined by conditioned response. Psychologists of the Freudian tradition recognizes consciousness, but they place overwhelming importance on the sex symbol.
It was Carl Jung who brought the study of consciousness back to psychology, leading to the rise of the humanistic tradition. Like Sheldrake's morphogenetic field, Jung's concept of collective consciousness is similar to, or probably influenced by, the Buddhist concept of alaya consciousness. Jung also argued for the inter-connectedness of all things in the universe, and coined the term synchronicity to describe the simultaneous occurrence of meaningful but not casually related events. This of course is reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of mutual arising and inter-penetration of all phenomena. His concept of Imago Dei (or the God Within) in man reminds us of our Buddha nature.
The philosophies of existentialism and of phenomenology greatly influences many psychologists. Existentialism expounds that existence is coming into being, rather than a state of being, which is a parallel of the Buddhist teaching that life is a process of continuous becoming rather than a static state of existence. Existentialist psychologists believe man has free choice in his behaviour and action, rather than being conditioned by hereditary or environmental factors. This again is similar to the Buddhist teaching that man is responsible for and creates his own karma, and not governed by or the inevitable fate of it.
One major problem of the existentialist psychologists and psychiatrists is "existential isolation" where people have lost interest in their work and feel exceedingly lonely in their existence, often driving them to depression and suicide. Here, Buddhism can offer an effective remedy. The Buddhist teaching of the Bodhisattva's ideal, for example, where we help others in their salvation as well as work for our own enlightenment, give value and meaning to our work and life.
Phenomenology is the study of the appearance of things as they appear in consciousness, rather than the things in themselves. This philosophy is strikingly Buddhist. Psychologists and psychiatrists following the phenomenological tradition focus on the phenomena of consciousness, and the analysis of their relationships. This phenomenological method reads like practising Buddhist meditation.
In western psychology an important school developed in the 1960s as an reaction against the mechanistic and deterministic attitude of behaviourism, and as a return to the humanistic principles of William James. This is humanistic psychology, led by such eminent psychologists like John Cohen (who coined the name in 1958), Carl Roger and Abraham Maslow. Psychology regains its initial purpose of studying the mind, and not the mechanical brain, and some of its leading exponents hope that it may lead man to cosmic consciousness. Maslow says:
I consider Humanistic, Third Force Psychology to be transitional, a preparation for a still "higher" Fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centred in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interest, going beyond humanness, identity, self-actualization, and the like.
This ideal of the humanistic psychologists is reminiscent of the Buddhist aspiration of transcending the personal mind to actualize the Universal Mind, which is enlightenment. Maslow's hope was soon realized. Eminent pioneers like Lawrence LeShan, Arthur Deikman and Jean Houston are bringing the study of mind from mechanistic behaviorism and psychoanalysis through a humanistic transition to a transpersonal psychology and psychiatry of cosmic consciousness.
Similar to Bohn's explicate and implicate order in physics, and related to Sheldrake's morphogenetic field in biology and Pribram's holograph in neurophysiology, in psychology Lawrence LeShan classified reality into two kinds: sensory reality and clairvoyant reality. In sensory reality, objects and events are separated in time and space, information is obtained through the senses, an event or action can be judged good or evil, and there are free will and decision making. In clairvoyant reality, individual identity is essentially illusory, there is no difference between the knower and the known, there is neither goodness nor evil, and free will and decision making become irrelevant.
It is amazing how similar to the Buddhist concepts of samsara and nirvana, are LeShan's concepts of sensory reality and clairvoyant reality. Indeed, if we substitute samsara for sensory reality, and nirvana for clairvoyant reality, the above will read like a typical Buddhist text. In clairvoyant reality, just as in nirvana, what is, IS: everything is uniform and transcendental, infinite and eternal: hence, there is neither goodness nor evil, and free will and decision making become irrelevant.
There is, however, one very important difference between LeShan's ideas and the Buddhist teaching. LeShan says:
A person cannot live fully consciously aware of the Clairvoyant Reality for any length of time. One would not survive biologically in this way for very long. To live completely consciously unaware of it, however, makes man less than he can be, and robs him of much of his potential.
LeShan's opinion is understandable and valid for his purpose, as he is speaking principally as a psychologist. The Buddha's teaching is just the opposite. Attaining nirvana is the supreme aim of Buddhism, whereby the enlightened being can remain blissfully for eternity, unless he chooses to come out of nirvana, such as to help others.
Attaining nirvana is the highest achievement any man, any sentient beings including gods, can ever achieve. When ALL illusory separateness in the eternal, infinite cosmos has disappeared, the enlightened being becomes ‑- IS ‑- the Supreme Reality! What endeavour can be greater and more noble than this?
Parapsychology and Psychical Research
In the fields of parapsychology and psychical research, many Buddhist concepts are involved. Many of the methods employed to develop psychic abilities in parapsychology resemble elementary Buddhist meditation plus technological gadgets, but without its spiritual dimension. There is ample evidence in psychical research to confirm existence in other realms and reincarnations, which are basic tenets in Buddhism.
Well known mediums like Douglas Home, Florence Cook, Rev. Stainton Moses, Eusapia Palladino and Leonara Piper held seances where they spoke for, and sometimes even materialized the form of, spirits of the dead. Using ouija boards or automatic writing, investigators communicated with spirits or higher intelligence like Patience Worth, Olga and Seth.
A convincing case of life after death was provided by Frederick Myers, one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and whose book Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death is a classic. After his death in 1901, various people from different parts of the world who did not know each others, received messages from him through automatic writing for over thirty years. Often these manuscripts were meaningless by themselves, but when they were collected at the SPR the messages became coherent and meaningful.
Another famous case is that of Bridey Murphy. Under hypnotic regression in 1954, Virginia Tighe recalled her former life as Bridey Murphy in 19th century Ireland vividly and accurately, providing information that would be difficult to explain except by way of reincarnation. A. J. Stewart, even in normal consciousness, recalled her former life as King James IV of Scotland with such accuracy on little known information which was later verified, that even skeptical experts had to accept her claim seriously. Since 1960 Professor Ian Stevenson has collected over 1200 cases where children recall their former lives.
Dr Raymond Moody's recorded the experience of patients who "returned from death", which provide circumstantial evidence of the afterlife. His book, Life After Life, is a classic. There also has been much research into out-of-body experience, both involuntary like those who suddenly find their consciousness outside their physical body in life-threatening situations, and voluntary like whose consciousness leaves the body on purpose. Dedicated investigators included Hereward Carrington, a modern pioneer; Dr Robert Crookall, who analyzed about 1000 cases; and Dr Charles Tart, who used strict scientific methods in his investigation.
Sylvan Muldoon described in great details his feelings and observations during his many astral travels. Robert Monroe classified the places he lad visited in his astral travels into three kinds: Locale I which is the world of our normal experience; Locale II includes the realms of heaven and hell whose inhabitants he could communicate with; Locale III resembles the strange world of Alice in Wonderland. These out-of-body experiences, which many Westerners find hard to believe, confirm the Buddhist teaching that the mind is different from the brain, and that life may exist in pure consciousness without any form.
Karma and Reincarnation
Perhaps the most famous psychics in the West in modern time is Edgar Cayce. Between 1923 and 1943, while in a consciousness level resembling sleep, Cayce gave around 2500 readings which showed how the karma of past lives affects present lives. Many chronic illnesses and inexplicable problems that could not be satisfactorily cured or solved, were relieved when the sufferers understood their previous lives. These readings, which reveals deep wisdom as well as curing patients whom Cayce had never seen at all, are now kept in the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, and are open to public investigation.
Initially when Cayce was shown his transcript after he awoke, he protested that the transcript did not accurately record his words because he knew neither the term nor the meaning of karma which he often used in his readings during his trance-like states. As a pious Christian, Cayce was at first skeptical about rebirth, but the overwhelming evidence of his own readings and the tremendous benefit an understanding of their previous lives had brought to thousands of people, eventually convinced Cayce of the truths of reincarnation.
Today many people realize that actually there is nothing in Christianity against the reincarnation concept; it was the Church in 552 that decreed against it. Indeed there are numerous passages in the Bible that support the reincarnation concept. The following are just two examples.
But before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah.
-- Malachi 4:5.
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I, Son of Man, am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. -- Matthew 16:13:4.
In the first passage above, it is implied that Jesus is a reincarnation of Elijah. In the second passage, Jesus asks whom do the people think he is. The disciples answer that some think Jesus is John the Baptist, some think he is a reincarnation of Elias, Jeremias or one of the earlier prophets.
Although most Westerners were at first adverse to or skeptical about rebirth and other realms of existence, which are basic tenets in the Buddha's teaching, many Westerners now accept these concepts as valid, because not only there is much evidence in parapsychology and psychical research to support these concepts, but the other sciences, particularly physics, are also steering away from a mechanistic to a spiritual perspective. Francis Story says:
I believe that a change in outlook is beginning to dawn, and that science itself, having destroyed the basis of much wrong thinking, is drawing us over nearer to the realization of the truths proclaimed by the Enlightened One. That is what I mean by "the scientific approach to Buddhism" without being aware of it, the modern scientist and philosophers are being propelled irresistibly in the direction of Buddhism.
It is indeed amazing how much modern science is found in Buddhism. There are still many concepts in Buddhism that science and many people find hard to accept, such as life is found everywhere in the cosmos, people are continuously reborn (unless they have attained enlightenment), there are numerous realms of existence even in our world, and some beings can exist in pure consciousness.
It is significant to point out that throughout its history, science has undergone numerous major revisions, and each revision reaffirmed what has been taught by the Buddha. Some notable examples include thinking the world was a few hundred thousand years old, the earth was the centre of the universe, our galaxy was the cosmos, time and space were absolute, the particles that made up the myriad objects of the world were hard and solid, the external world was objectively real, and the mind was merely a function of the brain.
Before these revisions were made, people of those times would find it very hard to believe that what they had accepted as "scientific facts" were wrong. For example, most people in the 19th century would find it ridiculous to say that the chairs they were sitting on are virtually emptiness. This concept of emptiness is in fact what the Buddha has been teaching all the time. Since in the past the Buddha's teaching was proven right all the time where science was wrong, will history repeat itself to show that those Buddhist concepts which science presently disagree, are true after all? Even if we do not answer yes, we shall at least keep an open mind.
But we must also note that although the latest discoveries of science are already found in Buddhism for centuries, it is never implied that these and other scientific discoveries are not useful. Because the objectives of Buddhism and science are not the same, their accomplishments are necessarily different too, although the truth or reality they reveal are similar. It is obvious that even if we have Buddhism wisdom, without scientific discoveries our lives will not be as wealthy and comfortable. On the other hand, material wealth and comfort may not be enough; the Buddha's teaching, or the teaching of any religion we choose to follow, illuminates the path to our spiritual and highest fulfilment.