Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 1: The Physical World

Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics, Volume 1: The Physical World

Edited by Thupten Jinpa
Somerville, Mass.: Wisdom, 2017. 530 pp., hardcover; $29.95

Monks and scholars, just as you test gold

By burning, cutting, and polishing it
So too well examine my speech.
Do not accept it merely out of respect.
—The Buddha

The Buddha said to accept the validity of what he taught only after direct experience; the mere testimony of scriptures is not sufficient. The examination of the nature of reality is only real when it is accompanied by direct perception. Scientists take a similar approach, with experimentation and mathematical logic as pillars of inquiry. Buddhism and science thus share this mode of critical inquiry, which draws its conclusions from evidence and reasoning. In Buddhism, however, empirical observation has a wider scope than the range of the five senses and includes experiences arising from meditation practice.

This, the first of a four-volume series, presents classic Buddhist scientific and philosophical explorations of the nature of reality for the contemporary reader. This series was conceived by the Dalai Lama and compiled under his supervision. The ancient Buddhist treatises identify three domains: the scientific, the philosophical, and the religious. The first two volumes in this series cover the scientific domain, with volume 1 presenting the physical world and volume 2 presenting the mind sciences.

Buddhism has two things that have great potential to serve everyone, regardless of their faith, as the Dalai Lama explains in his introduction. One is the presentation of the nature of reality (or science), and the second is the methods for training the mind to alleviate suffering and discover inner peace. Four principles of reason characterize the Buddhist outlook on the world: the principle of nature (that is, the way it is); the principle of dependence (cause and effect); the principle of function (those we perform and those we support); and the principle of evidence (drawing inferences: if such is the current state, such will be the future state). Contemporary science gives us the Big Bang theory for the emergence of the universe, but the Buddhist sources answer further questions, such as “what is the relationship between the natural world and the sentient beings that came to evolve with it?” The presentation of the nature of reality in Buddhism is fourfold: (1) the nature of the objective world; (2) the presentation of the mind, the subject; (3) how the mind engages its object; and (4) the means (the science of logical reasoning) by which the mind engages its object. This framework has been adopted for volume 1.

The depth with which volume 1 is presented is astonishing. The exploration is divided into six parts: “Overview and Methodology,” “Knowable Objects,” “Subtle Particles,” “Time,” “The Cosmos and Its Inhabitants,” and “Fetal Development.” Each part is introduced by Thupten Jinpa (the editor of this volume and the Dalai Lama’s principal translator) and provides a list of further readings in English. It is almost impossible to describe what each part entails in a short space. I was especially interested in causality and time.

The impulse to avoid pain is our nature, and being conditioned beings brings forth suffering (the First Noble Truth). Suffering necessarily has a cause (the Second Noble Truth). The ultimate cause of suffering is ignorance, but ignorance can be resolved (the Third Noble Truth). The cessation also has a cause (the Fourth Noble Truth).

The section on cause and effect in this volume is enlightening. Dharmakirti’s treatise The Exposition of Valid Cognition states:

Where it exists that arises

And when it changes that changes as well

This is referred to as the cause.

The section on time says that it is posited on the basis of “three states of conditioned things”: (1) that which is not yet risen; (2) that which has arisen but has not yet ceased; and (3) that which has arisen and ceased. This in turn relates to “entities of cause and effect that have already come, are coming, and will come into being.” In Buddhist thought, the shortest unit of time can be thought of as a moment. The Buddhist texts describe two types of moments: (1) the shortest moment of time; and (2) the moment required to complete an action. Vasubandhu posits that the “shortest moment” is 1/65 of the time it takes a strong man to snap his fingers. One hundred and twenty of these short moments are one second.

Major sources in this work have come from Tibetan translations of original Sanskrit works, which are mostly lost. Two canonical collections are used: “The precious collection of Kangyur contains translations of Buddha’s words embodied in the three baskets (Tripitaka), and the precious collection of the Tengyur contains treatises of great Nalanda masters such as Nagarjuna and Asanga.” (Nalanda University in India was the great center of Buddhist learning until it was sacked by the Muslims around AD 1200.) Works of the Buddhist sages Vasubandhu, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti are also quoted throughout volume 1. This is an astounding effort and a rich treasure, with the Dalai Lama’s vision shining through.

Dhananjay Joshi

The reviewer, a professor of statistics, has studied Hindu, Zen, and vipassana meditation for the past forty-five years. He is a regular reviewer for Quest and volunteers in the archives department of the TSA.