Can Science Aid The Understanding of Buddhism?

Between them, the master and scholar Karma Thinley Rinpoche, born in Eastern Tibet in 1931, and Lama Jampa Thaye, born in north west England in 1952, are very specially qualified to examine the relationship between western science and Buddhist teaching, the dharma. This is a meeting of minds that spans the two cultures of a Tibet that knew almost nothing of western science, and that of westerners  awakening to the wisdom embraced in Tibetan Buddhism.

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The topic of how science relates to Buddhist teaching, when discussed by such scholars and masters as these, invokes the most profound thought. In his essay ‘The Telescope of Faith’ Rinpoche, making reference to astronomic and cosmic constellations as examples of scientific knowledge where he says:

“Just knowing the size of the universe and the distances and numbers of stars and so on is not the same as complete omniscience.

With skilful means, from his perceiving the nature of things to be the Four Noble Truths, one should know that it is the Buddha who is omniscient, possessing the unsurpassable benevolence of enlightened activities, undiminished by time”

 

There is clearly great profundity wrapped up in these lines. One question they raise in one’s mind is: Could any scientist, however great yet still limited to describing that which is tangible in the world, ever attain the extraordinary reach of the omniscience to which Rinpoche refers?

 

The reader may wonder what concern this may be of theirs?

The omniscience of a buddha, which relates to mind rather than matter, has very direct relevance to all of us; for if it were not for that, the Buddha’s insight into the nature of each and every one of our mind-streams and how they function, would no longer have any relevance. So, therefore, having confidence in Buddha’s omniscience means the world to us as Buddhists because it provides a means of removing suffering and achieving happiness and contentment.

But, why concern ourselves with how science does or does not relate to that?

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Lama Jampa, in his book ‘Wisdom in Exile’ and in his recent teaching in Bristol in January on Rinpoche’s ‘Telescope of Faith’, explained that there is a need to recognise that, even as lay-people largely unversed in science, we are all influenced to some extent by the pervasive idea that a scientific approach is the most superior way of getting to the truth of things.

Science may well be the best way mankind currently has of understanding the material world and manipulating parts of it through technology based on science. But a a real understanding of mind and consciousness still eludes scientists.

In his commentary on ‘Distinguishing Consciousness and Primordial Wisdom’, Rinpoche notes the important role played by the brain that has always been known in dharma.

“It is not to be thought that the mind is the brain. Rather, the brain’s ability to perform functions is due to the power of mind’s existence.”

This is a very different perspective from that of the materialists; a point that has long been understood by Buddhist masters.

Does this mean that, from a dharma perspective, we should discount or even try to debunk science?

Nowhere does Rinpoche suggest that. During the teaching Lama Jampa gave on Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol recently, he related anecdotally how Rinpoche took a keen interest in the findings of Western astronomy soon after settling in Canada in the 1970s and sees no need to dispute them even though they are in stark contrast to the ancient Indian cosmology referenced in the dharma texts from which he was educated and which he mastered years ago in Tibet.

It is obviously beyond the scope of this blog to attempt to elucidate and answer these subtle points and big questions. For that, we need to study the writings of our learned teachers and, whenever possible, go and listen to their analysis and elucidation of these questions. The experience of being present when the Lama is explaining these matters cannot be bettered, if one really wants to find a way into a profound understanding of immense topics like the omniscience of buddhas and the nature of consciousness and, to bring it right on home, our own minds.

Hearing the Lama expound on such matters and then contemplating his words helps us identify, and begin to strip away, patterns of thinking that have obstructed clear comprehension of Buddha’s teaching.

There is an opportunity to hear Lama Jampa teach once again on this topic on 2nd June when he will present the second (and concluding) part of his explanation of Rinpoche’s Telescope of Faith in Bristol. See the website for full details.