Author: U Shwe Zan Aung, D. Litt., (1871- 1932)
The Translator of 'The Compendium of Philosophy'


Copyright - Myanmar Book Centre & Book Promotion & Service Ltd., Bangkok, Thailand

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      Buddhism as a Science

      Buddhism has been studied by a line of commentators and sub-commentators as a science with the result that their critical examination has given rise to what is now termed by Occidentals the post-Pitakan development of Buddhist psychology. It must not, however, be concluded that every thing post-Pitakan is neo-Buddhism. Buddhist exegetists never departed from the original canonical texts. Their method of procedure is a strict, critical comparison of the different parts of the scripture. That is, they merely apply one part to explain another. And their deductions from the principles contained in some parts are carefully tested and verified by a reference or references to other parts or by deductions there from. There is not the slightest hesitation on their part to reject their deductions when they find them opposed to the spirit of their philosophy or when they are not supported by other doctrinal tenets. Thus they have their own rules of criticism which they rigorously apply. They have also adopted a common, uniform code of what may be called commentarial logic by which they meet anticipated objections of imaginary opponents. A knowledge of this code is essential to students or translators so as to distinguish the heterodox from the orthodox views. In this sense, then, I speak of Buddhism as a science in the same way as we may speak of language as a science in the hands of grammarians or philologists, or of education in the hands of educationalists.

       A few examples of post-Pitakan development will suffice to show that Buddhism, unlike Western philosophy, has not been affected by a succession of philosophers.

       The Buddha spoke of birth and death, growth and decay, of things as generation (uppada) and dissolution (bhanga). A set of his followers infers an intervening phase of existence, called duration (thiti), between the two states. The author of the Mulatika criticises this view on the ground that this hypothetical phase is not warranted by the Buddha's Word. The advocates of the view argue that it was not necessary for the Buddha to expressly state it since an intermediate state is always understood between the beginning and the end of any phenomenon.

       Here one and the same phenomenon is discussed from two view points. Next, the Buddha spoke of the phenomenon of generation under one term 'birth' (jati). But his followers distinguished the initial (upacaya) aspect of it from the continued (santati) aspect. The former is confined to the initial phenomenon of generation in a series, while the latter is applied to the subsequent phenomenon of generation in that series. For example, in propagation by cell-division, the Jati or birth of the initial cell would be termed upacaya-jati, but the proliferation of later cells would be termed santati-jati And yet both sets of the phenomena are physiologically the same.

       Again, the Buddha, by implication, spoke of sensibles as coming in to contact with our organism. The author of the Maha-atthakatha made no distinction whatsoever among the five classes of sensibles. Eight hundred years later Buddhaghosa distinguished light and sound as asampatta-rupa (i.e., material qualities that do not come into contact with organisrn} and the rest as sampatta-rupa. This distinction was drawn because the objective sources of the former two classes of sensibles do not bodily come into contact with our organism. Still we cannot say that the Maha-atthakatha was wrong since the last ether waves of light and the air-waves of sound do reach the eye and the ear respectively.

       The Buddha spoke of apprehension or avajjana (lit, turning to objects). But for the clearer understanding of the processes of thought it was necessary for his disciples to distinguish the pancadvaravajjana, i.e., turning to a sense-stimulus in presentative consciousness, from the manodvaravajjana, i.e., turning to any other object in both presentative and representative consciousness.

       When Buddhist students were in doubt as to whether they should insert a moment of bhavanga or life-continuum after votthabbana or the moment of determination of an object in a process of thought, they referred to the Patthana where the Buddha said that life-continuum is immediately followed by 'turning' or avajjana. But nowhere did the Buddha say that the reverse is the case. Now, according to Buddhist psychology, the faculty of rnanodvaravajjana or turning to objects other than sensibles. performs the function of votthabbana or determining an object in presentative consciousness. Therefore, they decided that life-continuum does not follow the last-named operation of determining.

      Again, when they wished to decide the question of the relation of dream to sleep, they argued as follows:—

      "To say that dreams occur in sleep would be opposed to the spirit of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, but to say that they occur during waking would be equally opposed to the spirit of the Vinaya Pitaka. Therefore, dreams occur during the transitional stage from sleep to waking or vice versa."

       As regards the physical basis of thought, it is clear that the Buddha never adopted the then prevailing and universally accepted theory that the heart was the seat of consciousness. Either he was silent as in the Dhammasangani where he should have dwelt at length on the seat of consciousness or he took the trouble of describing the same in so many words as in the Patthana where he could not possibly avoid the subject. Buddhaghosa adopted the heart-theory, probably from an earlier authority, in order to explain, the circumlocutory words of the Buddha. We only require another courageous scholar, like the Yaw Atwinwun, to refute this theory by pointing out that the observed sympathetic affections of the heart by emotions is due to the pakatupanissaya, i.e., the relation of emotion to the heart as a proximate cause, but not to the nissaya, i.e, the relation of heart to emotion as a basis or seat.

       Notwithstanding such examples of the post Pitakan development, Buddhism of to-day is essentially that of five-and-twenty centuries ago. It is a wonderfully self-consistent system. What appears contradictory at first sight is at least reconcilable by correct interpretation.

      The Science of Buddhism

      The unity of all science consists alone in its method, not in its material. And if one could show that Buddhism and science are alike in method, apart from facts and theories treated of in each, he would be justified in calling the former a scientific system- Carr in his Philosophy of Change draws a distinction between philosophical and scientific methods as follows: -

       "The distinctive character of this philosophical method is that it apprehends the whole before it apprehends the part and that it interprets the parts as a dissociation within a whole. Science, on the other band, conceives the whole as an association of its parts."

       We should think that the difference is in principle, not in method. Buddhism, we have seen elsewhere ( J.B.R.S.VOL. VII,.Pt. ll, p. 151) encourages the study of phenomena by observing the characteristics (Lakkhana), properties (sampattirasa) functions (kiccarasa,), resulting phenomena (upatthanakara-paccuppatthana ), effects (phala-paccuppatthana) and proximate causes (padatthana) of facts. It assumes the uniformity of nature and employs the Baconian method of induction. Finally, it applies traditional logic to the generalisations arrived at by induction.

       A great many principles embodied in Buddhism are, more or less, generalisations which could be arrived at only by induction. For in stance, the theory of the ceaseless flux of things is one of the highest generalisations, which has its parallel in its universal application only in Newton's theory of gravitation. The Theory of Karma is another generalisation arrived at by induction probably not in one life but in countless lives of the Buddha. It is difficult to verify this theory unless one practises Jhana and develops hypermnesia or improved memory of past lives (Pubbenivasanussati-abhinna). But such generalisation as the theory that pain is the badge of sentient tribes can be easily verified by normal experience. Another theory of the nonexistence of substance is the highest generalisation that has not been equalled by any. It has its support in the modern electrical theory of matter. What distinguishes Buddhism as a philosophy from ordinary science is intuition. But intuition is an extreme case of observation not from without as in ordinary scientific procedure but from within. Therefore, there is no essential difference between the scientific and Buddhistic methods. Moreover, Buddhism favours comparative and analytic methods of science.

      Buddhism in Science

       There is Buddhism in every science which accepts the theory of change, the theory of causation and the theory of evolution. Buddhism, as we have seen, inculcates the doctrine of change and teaches the doctrine of causation. It also teaches the theory of the evolution of Evil. There is a parallel in the antithesis between Darwin's theory of the evils of evolution and Buddha's doctrine of the evolution of evils. The former is due to the great struggle for existence and the latter, to the will to live (tanha). which gives rise to the struggle for existence. A few decades ago Darwin was scoffed at but now evolution is the watchword of every science; Biology, Geology, Astronomy, etc., all recognise the principle of evolution. Even philosophy has not escaped its dictum. Both Buddhism and Bergsonism accept the creative evolution.

      Science in Buddhism

      Both philosophy and science bear on reality, the latter confining itself to views from without. The field of science is unlimited. With the march of modern science, the subject is never likely to attain its finality. It will not be possible even to exhaust the present stock of scientific theories and facts for want of corresponding theories and facts in Buddhism. Further researches might discover more scientific facts and theories in Buddhism. And what does not strike one as scientific now in Buddhism may assume the scientific character when new facts and theories are discovered by science. For the present, I purpose to single out a few scientific items out of Buddhist scriptures.


      First and foremost Buddhism has been considered as eminently practical and ethical. Its ethics has been generally looked upon as a mere code of human conduct. But what is usually called the science of ethics or the theory of ethics is really the psychology of ethics. And psychology is the stronghold of Buddhism.


      Buddhist psychology is at once complete and comprehensive, providing a place for every possible form of thought known or unknown in Western psychology. Not only does it treat of normal consciousness, but also of supernormal and transcendent consciousness. It observes, analyses, compares and classifies consciousness. It bases the laws of mind on the assumed uniformity of mental sequence, and treats of the relations of consciousness. It compares thought to a light, thereby teaching that thought is a sort of radiation. The recognition of it as a radiation would not only explain the phenomenon of telepathy but should open up a vast field for research to place psychology on a level with exact sciences by experimental measurements of thought-waves.


       Speaking of telepathy, I may observe that hypnotism has only recently been recognised as a science in the West. It was long known in the East and has been practised by Buddhists and other Orientals with greater perfection than in the West. The Western method begins with a subject while the Buddhist method begins with the operator himself. It is only by self-control that one can expect to dominate the will of another. Thus while the Western hypnotist cannot hypnotise any person against his will, the Eastern adept has been known to have hypnotised a whole group of subjects. To a mental physiologist the existence of thought independently of the brain would be inconceivable. And yet Buddhism taught it twenty-five centuries ago, and has since found a support in experimental hypnotism which has proved that mind under certain circumstances may be very active when the brain is so to speak, asleep.


       Buddhism has been held to be weakest in physical sciences. Take geography first. Nowhere did the Buddha say that the Earth is flat. Buddhaghosa, like Thales and the author of the Suriyasiddhanta, taught the sphericity of the Earth. This globe is surrounded by air and space on all sides. Even the Hindu cosmogony, which has been made use of in Buddhist writings as popular illustrations, is, on closer examination, not much at fault. It is the popular opinion and interpretation that are at fault. For instance, Mount Meru, which is placed in the centre of the earth is nothing more than the imaginary axis between the two poles. It has been imagined by some to be square and by others to be cylindrical. Its summit, which is no other than the North Pole, always turns towards the Polar star, which has been superstitiously regarded by the ignorant as the summit of the turret on the spire of the palatial mansion of the King of gods. There is a story that Kawalamaing, an adept in the fourth book of Atappana Veda, once manufactured a cannon to shoot down the Sikra, King of gods. The latter knowing his intention came down to the Earth in the form of a human being and asked him how he would aim his fire at the mansion of the King of gods. The adept replied that he would direct his fire by means of the Polar star. The Sikra then tested his knowledge as to the whereabouts of the King of gods. The expert replied that the King of gods was then on earth talking to him with one leg on a field bund. Thereupon the King of gods, fearing that the seer might be able to shoot him down, spiked the gun and disappeared. I dare say there are different versions of the same story. Though not worth the paper on which it is written, it shows that even geography was taught in an allegory. Commander Peare or Dr. Cook bad been forestalled by Hindus ages ago. It is a human desire to reach the abode of gods and there was a quest for the North Pole. Here the story relates that the Sikra, fearing that human beings might reach their home, assumed the form of an old man with grey beard and met the party in quest of the Pole on their way thereto. The old man asked them where they are going to and the party replied that they were seeking the North Pale. The Sikra bade them return borne by saying that he himself had been in quest of the same for nearly a life-time hut without success. He asked them to witness his grey beard thereupon the party returned.

       Ancients, however, knew that at the North Pole, East and West disappear and that every direction from it is South. Now, Buddhism teaches that nothing is stationary in space or time. Therefore, it follows that the globe moves in space like other heavenly bodies.

      Astronomy and Astrology

       The mention of heavenly bodies brings the subject to astronomy. Here also, eclipses are taught allegorically. For instance, the eclipses of the moon are graphically described as periodical seizures by an Asura who is represented as a dark god revolving, with tremendous speed, close to the Earth. Even in this pictorial representation in a mythical garb, one cannot fail to see that the Asura is no other than the shadow of the revolving Earth personified. The idea of antipodes of the Earth was also developed in the representation that this Asura can stand on the South Pole without falling into the abyss. Astrology, which gave rise to astronomy, was condemned by the Buddha and so far as superstitions and prognostications are concerned.

       Long before the telescope was invented an infinite number of suns, planets, and worlds was asserted.


      Some of the worlds are in course of birth, some, in course of formation as now observed by modern astronomers on the rings of Saturn, and others are in course of decay to become dead like the moon. Our last world was drawn nearer the sun or suns and burnt up. The whole system was changed into one expanse of burning gas or vapour containing all the heterogenous elements. This stage of destruction or samvatta occupied one asankkyeyya-kalpa or geologic period of incalculable number of years. This corresponds with the geological theory that our earth was formed from an off-shoot of a sun. This chaotic condition prevailed and continued for another period called samvatta-thayi-kalpa .

       The process of renovation or restoration or vivatta began with the third period when, with the continued fall of temperature, some of the elements changed into a molten mass and others remained in a state of vapour. The molten mass cooled down and began to solidify in the fourth or last period called vivatta-thayi-kalpa. In this process the outer part cooled down quicker and formed the earth's crust. With the further fall of temperature the condensation of remaining vapour began and a sort of rain fell filling up the hollows on the crust of the earth and forming seas and oceans. The residual vapour was still dense so as not to permit any light to pass through. Further deposits front the vapour would leave the present condition of our atmosphere.


      Buddhists advocate the theory of biogenesis that life comes from previous life. They attribute all physical changes to heat or utu, but hold that life or jivita is kammaja, i.e., born of Kamma. Therefore, according to Buddhism, the absolute origin of life is an insoluble problem of problems.


      Buddhism further teaches that man is the highest product of evolution in the scale of beings by placing man even above gods. White the great antiquity of mankind is insisted on, its origin, like that of life, is a mystery of mysteries. Buddhism denies panna or reason to lower animals.


      In bacteriology, a better knowledge of the eighty classes of microbes may possibly aid in further researches in connection with incurable diseases, notwithstanding what a recent lecturer has said on the subject of the germ-theory.

      Buddhism teaches that old age is a kind of disease and is preventible. It does not mean that the allotted interval between Old Age, birth and death can be indefinitely prolonged What is allotted to each individual by his own Kamma can be cut short by preventible causes. We speak of longevity in the sense that the span of individual life may be above the normal. But Buddhists, like Metchnikoff, prescribed takka or sour milk as an antidote against the disease of old age.


       We pass an to the physiology of nutrition. Buddhism is the only philosophy which offers a theory furnishing a rationale of why the dead material food on assimilation is built up into living protoplasm and why living cells get dried up into dead matter again. The essence or oja of food undergoes anabolic changes when Kamma steps in to insert life into the last anastate and when katabolic processes begin, it is the same Kamma which withdraws life from the last katastate. Thus a mere knowledge of metabolism does not account for the appearance of life. Hence also the failure of the synthetic attempt of chemists to produce life by a mere combination of plasmic elements. Buddhism also teaches the momentary deaths of these cells.

      Cellular Theory

      The Buddhist histology of kalapas or cells is the cellular theory of the West. Four modes of reproduction are known to Buddhism. The propagation of cells by fission, etc., is a mode of reproduction in a suitable medium called Sanseda (lit, wet, slimy matter). Hence creatures born in this way are termed Sansedaja. The proliferation of cells has already been referred to.

       Although every being is born of an egg, the term andaja is confined Ovum to oviparous creatures, the viviparous being termed jalabuja.


      The embryonic development of the foetus or gabbaseyyaka is dealt with in Buddhist books, showing the progress from week to week.


       According to Buddhism, sex, like life, is born of Kamma. It is therefore, uncontrollable by the will of the parents. Hence the failure of modern experiments in the West to regulate the sex at pleasure. Primary and secondary sexual characters are also treated of in Buddhist books. The doctrine of Kamma satisfactorily accounts for all variations that cannot be accounted for by scientific heredity which is also recognised by Buddhism.

      Anatomy and Physiology

      Buddhism dissects the body into thirty-two parts for purposes of meditation and U Hlaing, Shwepyi Mingyi, wrote a book entitled Kayanuepassana or Anatomy on the subject. But, so far as I am aware, the functions of such internal organs as heart and lungs are not well understood.

      Alchemy and Chemistry

      Alchemy has been regarded in the west as impossible, but there are some people in the East who still believe it to be possible. What is the Buddhistic attitude towards it? Buddhism does not expressly deny it, but it does countenance the transmutation of things. This view is now supported by the discovery of radium which is constantly changing itself into helium.


       The modern theory of matter is perfectly compatible with the Buddhist theory of. the Four Essentials which are reducible to ether and electricity. Extension (pathavi) and cohesion (apo) correspond to the former, and heat (tejo) and motion (vayo), to electricity. Ledi Sadaw reduces matter to mere sattis (forces) or kriyas (actions) which correspond to what has been differently styled ether-twists, ether-strains in the West.

       In the conception of heat science and Buddhism are one. Both do not recognise cold as a separate, independent force. Each regards it as but the absence of heat.

      Although matter is, as we have seen, reducible to forces, smell, taste and touch are more popularly considered to be of the nature of vatthu or matter. Smell and taste, for instance, are considered to be consisting of effluvia and sapid particles respectively. But light and sound are classed apart from them, so that we know that Buddhism does not countenance the emission theory of light and sound. On the contrary, it looks as if the Buddhists were feeling out their way for the undulatory or wave theory. The possibility of the presentation of light and sound as well as any other classes of sensibles without objective stimuli is unmistakably laid down in Buddhism. For instance, light can be presented to a closed eye as when electricity is applied to the temple.

      Buddhism in Relation to Science

      In conclusion, Buddhism as a philosophy underlies all sciences. As sciences become more and more specialised, they become less and less coherent in meanings. And they require a philosophy to coordinate them all. On the other hand, the monistic tendency of every science to a few highest generalisations in each is likely to end in the unification of all under one philosophy. Buddhism has been endorsed by every past discovery and hails all future discoveries. It sanctions accepted theories such as the conservation of energy. If it has countenanced the atomic theory of Dalton, which has been exploded by the modern electrical theory of matter, it is because that that theory contained a partial truth. And if it now countenances the electrical theory, it only shows how Buddhism is adaptive to the growing needs of the human intellect. In this sense, Buddhism is a marvellous system. Schopenhauer saw pessimism in it; Huxley, agnosticism. Thus each individual thinker may identify Buddhism with his own system. But Buddhism has nothing to fear from them or from their theories, as it is altogether free from dogmas.

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