Buddhism & Science in the 21st Century by Cicero T. Cortel

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Buddhism & Science in the 21st Century
Cicero T. Cortel
De La Salle Zobel School

Science after Einstein

Einstein was known to have said:

“The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” [1]

Einstein admitted openly that his God was the God of Spinoza[2] , not the personal one of religion. So the above quote should not be a surprise to one who knows about it. None the less, science has gone leaps and bounds after Einstein, not to take anything away from the great man on his achievements. It was his achievements that paved the way for more achievements- quantum physics and string theory. And relativity stands as one of the pillars of modern science.

The science after Einstein has gone stranger than fiction. And the best and easiest way to learn it is through Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design. It is a book written by an insider for the everyday people. Here it goes. Science breaks up into classical- Newtonian, relativity, and quantum mechanics. The first governs the science of the common day to day human existence- the science you and me and almost everybody else learned in school. The second is the science of objects or systems at speeds closer to the speed of light, in which length decreases, mass increases, and time slows down- Einstein’s own. The third governs interactions within the atom in terms of the sub-atomic particles they call quarks. In this scheme, a system in interaction may have more than one possible outcome. And the result turns out to be- dependent on the observer. So objectivity in subatomic physics goes down the drain.

“For example, according to the principles of quantum physics, which is an accurate description of nature, a particle has neither a definite position nor a definite velocity unless and until those quantities are measured by an observer. It is therefore not correct to say that a measurement gives a certain result because the quantity being measured had that value at the time of the measurement. In fact, in some cases individual objects don’t even have an independent existence but rather exist only as part of an ensemble of many.” [3]

In the light of these developments and distinctions in physics, Hawking wants us to adopt a view he called “model-dependent realism”. He used the goldfish bowl to explain it. [4] Looking at goldfish in a bowl, Hawking explains, they have a “curved” view of reality. However, they do not notice it because they are inside the bowl. And they can create consistent physics with that kind of view. So what if we are in a bigger bowl ourselves? Only someone who is outside our viewpoint can tell.

Lastly, Hawking delineates the nature of things based on a super-theory that would eventually be able to unify all the three fields of physics- classical, relativity, and quantum. It is to him the M-theory, which utilizes the mathematics of “strings”. Strings are two-dimensional realities which contains around ten dimensions of space-time.[5] And he uses it to explain the whole of reality. It is a mathematical account of reality. This theory can unify general relativitywhich contains the force of “gravity”- to quantum mechanics. [6] By doing so Hawking can provide a scientific explanation as to the origin of the universe, and he does not need a God to do so.

“Why are the fundamental laws as we have described them? The ultimate theory must be consistent and must predict finite results for quantities that we can measure. We’ve seen that there must be a law like gravity,…for a theory of gravity to predict finite quantities, the theory must have what is called supersymmetry[7] between the forces of nature and the matter on which they act. M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity. For these reasons M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself. We must be part of this universe, because there is no other consistent model.” [8]

The only remaining detail left to be explained is that the universe started from a “quantum vacuum”, which is the “nothing” of physics. And together with it, is the notion that there could be many possible universes- a multiverse- aside from ours.

Indeed the science of today has gone leaps and bounds beyond that which Einstein knew or even dreamed of. So did he bite off more than he could chew when he said that Buddhism is more consistent with science than any other religion?

Buddhist Metaphysics

Let us take a cursory look at Buddhism, and compare it with the science we have described courtesy of Stephen Hawking. According to the Abhidhamma Pitaka, reality is of two kinds- the apparent and the ultimate. The former is the common, conventional truth of day to day life (sammuti-sacca)[9], while the latter is the ultimate truth (paramattha-sacca). There are four ultimate realities- rupa, citta, cetasika and Nibbana (nirvana). Rupa comprises matter and energy. “Citta is consciousness, and cetasikas are mental factors or mental concomitants.” [10] Citta and cetasikas comprise what is commonly called the mind (nama) because they are responsible for sense knowledge.

A person should be made up of rupa, citta, and cetasikas, or just rupa and nama (matter and mind). Therefore, for Buddhism, the person or the “self”- is just apparent reality- not ultimate.

“O king, I am known as Nàgasena but that is only a designation in common use, for no permanent individual can be found.” [11]

In the Diamond Sutra, one finds this:

“The Buddha told Subhuti, “a good man, or good woman, who has resolved his heart on Anuttarasaüyaksaübodhi should think thus: ‘I should take all living beings across to extinction, yet when all living beings have been taken across to extinction, there actually is not a single living being who has been taken across to extinction.’” [12]

An important doctrine which pertains to the apparent truth (sammuti-sacca) in life is the doctrine of dependent origination or the Paticcasamuppada. It pertains to how each individual is involved in the Wheel of Existence undergoing the rounds of rebirth and misery in the long samsara.[13] The whole process operates as a law which starts from avijja or ignorance, then to tanha or craving, which leads to the rebirth process, which then leads to old age, death, worry, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. Then the law comes back again like a wheel. In this wheel, the roots are avijja and tanha. “We can cut off the two main roots of Paticcasamuppàda by tranquility and insight-meditation. When we see all the true nature of mentality and corporeality and open up the eight departments which are covered up by avijjà, then tanha has no place to attach to. So both avijjà and tanha will be cut off and we shall be liberated from the round of samsara. [14]

“No ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death and no ending of old age and death.” [15]

Nibbana is the principle of ending of suffering and true peace. And it always is part of nature, but we do not realize it. It can only be realized by the wisdom eye accompanied by the Path and its Fruition. [16]

“Because there is nothing to be attained, the Bodhisattva, relying on the Prajna Paramita, has no obstruction in his mind. Because there is no obstruction, he has no fear. And, thus, he passes far beyond confused imagination and reaches ultimate nirvana.” [17]

This state of nirvana however is beyond description and even imagination. What the reader can understand about it is through allegories and metaphors. In the conversation between the king Milinda and Nagasena, we’ll find these metaphors:

1. As the ocean is empty of corpses, nibbàna is empty of all defilements; as the ocean is not increased by all the rivers that flow into it, so nibbàna is not increased by all the beings who attain it; it is the abode of great beings [the arahants], and it is decorated with the waves of knowledge and freedom.[18]

2. Like a mountain peak, it is very high, immovable, in- accessible to the defilements, it has no place where defilements can grow, and it is without favoritism or prejudice. [19]

3. “But is there any place on which a man might stand and realize nibbàna? [20]

”Yes there is; virtue is the place; standing on that, and with reasoning, wherever he might be, whether in the land of the Scythians or the Bactrians, whether in China or Tibet, in Kashmir or Gandhàra, on a mountain top or in the highest heavens; the one who practices rightly realizes nibbàna

To close this excursus into Buddhism, it is good to keep in mind that only ultimate reality matters and only mind should lead one to nirvana. All the rest are sunyata or void. Even the self is anatta or “no soul” or “no self”.

“As the carpenter discards rotten wood and takes only sound timber; so should the monk discard wrong views like eternalism, nihilism, the soul is the body, the soul is one thing the body another, all teachings are alike excellent, the unconditioned is an impossibility, men’s actions are useless, there is no holy life, when a being dies a new being is reborn, conditioned things are eternally existing, the one who acts experiences the result thereof, one acts and another experiences the result, and all other such wrong views on the result of kamma (intention) and action (kiriya).Having discarded all such paths he should seize the idea of voidness, which is the true nature of conditioned things.” [21]


Let us now compare the two views and see if they are more congruent than different. On the onset, one must note well that Buddhism started much, much older than science. Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha lived around the fifth century B.C.[22] Science, developed only in the 17th century with Galileo and Newton. Modern science is a very young invention in the 20th century. Quantum mechanics and string theory came in latest.

Secondly, Buddhism is way much the opposite of science in terms of method and procedures. The Gautama went on a deep meditation, renunciation, and applied compassion when he went about teaching his methods. On the other hand, Richard Feynmanquantum physicsguru was known to be a “colorful character who worked at the California Institute of Technology and played the bongo drums at a strip joint down the road”. [23] The Buddhist way has much to do with rightness of living and compassion to attain truth, the way of science is independent of the life of the thinker. In fact, science scoffs at subjective influences, Buddhism banks on it. Science therefore, banks on objectivity and empirical evidence. These are aspects which legitimizes science. It is also what made science so successful in terms of technological advances. On the opposite side, the Gautama was a sage whose main tool was meditation and introspection in the jungles of India. So how can science and Buddhism be congruent or to say the least compatible.

Yet and just yet, if we go deeper than the surface of these ideologies, we might find curiously similar views. And this might be where the genius of Einstein had led us to. First, Buddhism believes in a dualist view of reality- the apparent (sammuti-sacca) and the ultimate (paramattha-sacca) views of reality. But so does modern science in its distinction of classical – the common sense view- and the quantum world of quarks and electrons. Modern science wants us to distinguish between the world as we see it, from the world as science analyses it- the sub-atomic world.

The table that one sees, is in fact millions of atoms together, and each atom is millions of electrons and quarks together. So the world is just matter and energy in several configurations- this is science’s view. Secondly, what matters more to modern science is energy, and it is a non-material reality. Buddhism likewise considers the body or rupa as only apparent and not real. For Buddhism mind is the real nature of reality, and this could as well be the nature of strings in the grand design of Hawking, as strings are “mathematical constructs” and what matters is the mind of the scientist that contemplates all these. The goldfish bowl view explains it.

Hawking conceived modern science as capable of explaining the universe without the aid of a God, and so does Buddhism. It is a very personalistic way of life and outlook that it does not need a deity to attain perfection. Although the Gautama did not tackle the beginning of the world as the grand design did, it did teach that there could be many worlds, and modern science also accepts such a many-worlds view through Feynman’s “sum over histories”. [24] The more thorny side of the comparison however, is that the grand design considers consciousness as just a function of atoms and quarks. On the other hand, Buddhism has a very detailed treatment of mind and consciousness. However, the grand design accommodates mind in the last chapter of the book, and goes all the way to explaining consciousness[25] and human freedom in the terms of science. I believe it is in mind and consciousness that the grand design and Buddhism could part ways.

So was Einstein wrong in what he said about the congruence between modern science and Buddhism? We should dig deeper and make broader our analysis to give a thorough answer to this. We have to keep well in mind that Buddhism considers the self as empty or void (anatta). Remember the teaching of Nagasena to the king Milinda about the self. And this too is similar to how the grand design wants us to view consciousness and the self. When Buddhism teaches us the doctrine of annica and anatta, this is the view that modern science depicts about reality. Modern science actually presents to us a view of reality so congruent with the natural law view of stoicism. And stoicism is a view so congruent with Buddhism in terms of how to view life and the world.

If one sees me in forms,
If one seeks me in sounds,
He practices a deviant way,
And cannot see the Tathàgata. [26]

To sum up everything, the world view proposed to us by Buddhism is congruent with the world view presented to us by science: all is matter and energy. The self and consciousness is just a function of matter which are therefore ephemeral.

Since an alien the size of a human would contain about a thousand trillion trillion particles even if the alien were a robot, it would be impossible to solve the equations and predict what it would do. We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will—not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions. [27]


What is more impressive is how two diametrically opposed approaches to analyze reality and the world could end up being so congruent in ontology. I am most impressed by the fact that Buddhism attained it in such a very short time in comparison to the hundreds of years for science to fully develop. Was it the personalistic, very deeply meditative way of Buddhism that made up for the hundreds of years, and billions of dollars spent, that science took to understand the ultimate nature of things? The deep jungles of India in contrast to the highly advanced laboratories in America and Europe. Not to underestimate Buddhism, it requires a very esoteric, highly complex metaphysical and ritualistic method of meditation and acts of compassion. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the Eight-fold Path prescribed by Dharma. [28] I would recommend that a Christian or anyone for that matter, should attempt at attaining nirvana or Nibbana, as much as they can. After all it is a life of morality, kindness, and compassion. One doesn’t really learn Buddhism just by reading books on it no matter how genuine the writings may be. The metaphysics pointed out in this paper, is just husk or outer shell. What is most meaningful remained unknown. In order to really understand it, one has to live it. One of the Buddha’s last words were:

“Go and be a lamp unto thyself” [29]


A. Buddhist Texts

  • Co, Alfredo. Philosophy of the Compassionate Buddha: Under the Bo-tree…on the Lotus F l o w e r . Manila: University of Sto. Tomas Publishing House, 2009.
  • Bhikkhu Pesala,ed. The Debate of King Milinda: an abridgement of the Milinda Pańha. Malaysia: Inward Path, 1991. Buddhanet.net. Web. 3 December 2015.
  • Dr. Mehm Tin Mon. Buddha Abhidhamma. Malaysia: Fo Guang Shan, 1995. Buddhanet Book Library. Web. 3 Dec.2015
  • Hua, Hsuan. A General Explanation Of The Vajra Prajñà Pàramità Sutra. San Francisco: S i n o - American Buddhist Association, Incorporated, 1974.
  • Hsuan Tsang, trans. Lok To, trans.English. The Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. New York: Buddhanet. net 2000

B. Science Texts

  • Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2 0 1 0 . P D F File
  • Kaku, Michico. “M-Theory: The Mother of all SuperStrings”.MK,2015.Web.5 Dec. 2015
  • Victor J. Stenger. Has Science Found God? New York: Prometheus Books,2001.


  1. Co, Alfredo. Philosophy of the Compassionate Buddha: Under the Bo-tree…on the Lotus Flower. Manila: UST Publishing House, 2009.p.31
  2. Albert Einstein, responding to Rabbi Herbert Goldstein who had sent Einstein a cablegram bluntly demanding “Do you believe in God?” Quoted from Victor J.Stenger, Has Science Found God? 2001, chapter 3
  3. Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.PDF File, p.41
  4. ibid.p.40
  5. Kaku, Michico. “M-Theory: The Mother of all SuperStrings”.MK,2015.Web.5 Dec. 2015
  6. Author’s Footnote: This is needed to understand what happened at the start of the big bang. In it we should find how gravity, which pertains to the very large stars and planets (present) can exist and behave in the extremely small dimensions at the start of the big bang they call “singularity” (past). The role to be played by string theory is precisely to establish a unification of gravity- the physics of the very large- to quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small.
  7. Kaku, Michico.
  8. Hawking, p.144-145
  9. Dr. Mehm Tin Mon. Buddha Abhidhamma. Malaysia: Fo Guang Shan, 1995. Buddhanet Book Library. Web. 3 Dec.2015,p.26
  10. ibid, p.30 “Cetasikas are the likes of anger, greed, conceit, and also goodwill.” (p.32)
  11. Bhikkhu Pesala,ed. The Debate of King Milinda: an abridgement of the Milinda Pańha. Malaysia: Inward Path, 1991. Buddhanet.net. Web. 3 December 2015, p.32
  12. Hua, Hsuan. A General Explanation Of The Vajra Prajñà Pàramità Sutra. San Francisco: Sino-American Buddhist Association, Incorporated, 1974.
  13. Dr. Mehm Tin Mon. Buddha Abhidhamma. Malaysia: Fo Guang Shan, 1995. Buddhanet Book Library. Web. 3 Dec.2015,p.298.
  14. ibid,p.318
  15. Hsuan Tsang, trans. Lok To, trans.English. The Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. New York: Buddhanet.net 2000,p.102.
  16. Mehm Tin Mon, p.30
  17. Hsuan Tsang, trans. Lok To, trans.English.,p.116-117
  18. Bhikkhu Pesala,ed.,p.156
  19. ibid,p.157
  20. Ibid, p.159
  21. Ibid,p.176
  22. Co, p.6
  23. Hawking,p.11
  24. Hawking, p.110
  25. Although it is beyond the aim of this research, one finds in the Abhidhamma a very rich and thorough analysis of consciousness and sense knowledge.
  26. Hua, Hsuan, p.228
  27. Hawking, p.110
  28. Co, p.44
  29. ibid 129