The science of Buddhism
Adapted from excerpts from a chapter in The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
The Buddha taught that there are innumerable beings in the universe. The plane of humans includes any intelligent species on any planet capable of Insight. One of the current theories among UFO enthusiasts is that the government is covering up evidence of life on other planets due to its destruction effect to nearly all religions. The “discovery” that there is life on other planets has no detrimental effect to the Buddha’s teachings.
For thousands of years, perhaps from the beginning of the human species and in the case of some people even continuing through today, humans did not believe that there was any life on other planets. The planet Earth was believed to be the center of the universe. God, gods, or other supernatural beings were credited with the creation of life on Earth alone. No mention was ever made to life on other planets in the secular or the religious writings of humankind.
It was believed that Earth was at the center with all of the stars and the Sun revolving around the Earth. The prevailing philosophy was this Earth-centered, human-centered idea. If the Earth were not the center of the universe, it was considered, then our planet would just be another planet and nothing special in relation to the universe.
Then came the Buddha and in his revolutionary way proclaimed that there are numerous other planets each with its own life forms. He said that these planets are great distances apart from each other. (Jayasuriya, 1963) (Majhima Nikaya 3.124) The Buddha said there are “thousands of suns, thousands of moons, thousands of continents.” Anguttara Nikaya 1.227
The scientist-astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus published in 1543 his theories in On the revolution of heavenly bodies. In this book Copernicus theorized that the sun and the stars do not revolve around Earth, but rather it is Earth, like the other planets, that revolve around the sun. Copernicus was criticized heavily, primarily by the religious authorities of the time in Europe since his theory rejected the Earth-centered, human-centered prevailing philosophy.
In 1609 Galileo, with the use of a telescope proved the theory of Copernicus. Thus, we find modern science on this issue “catching up” with the Buddha’s teachings 2,137 years after the Buddha spoke of life on other planets. Modern astronomy would later prove that not only does the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun, but also that there are countless other suns, solar systems, and planets in the known universe. In fact, our sun (the one we see rising and setting each day) actually revolves around another star, light years from us. This incredible fact now known and proven by modern science demonstrates that we on Earth are just one planet in an extremely huge universe of planets, other suns, solar systems, and planets.
The Buddha described a 10,000 world systems, which was to say that there are literally an innumerable amount of solar systems. A world system was the description for a sun or star with several planets revolving around it. We now know that there are several solar systems through direct evidence with high powered space telescopes. Nearly one hundred planets have been identified in the known universe up to this point. The Buddha stated that "the infinite world spheres are incalculable" (KN, Buddhavamsa 1.64).
Through the use of these high powered telescopes, located in orbit, scientists have been able to come up with some ideas on the formation of our own solar system. Scientists have observed the formation of other solar systems with the telescopes. It appears that new planets form around a new star from debris in the universe. A current theory is that the origin of this debris is from the destruction of a previous solar system.
This would seem to suggest that solar systems are formed, go through their normal life course of about 10 to 50 billion years and then perish. The debris leftover eventually reconstitutes itself in a transformation and becomes a new solar system. This is one hundred percent compatible with the Buddha’s teachings on no first beginning and the cycles of existence. The Buddha said that even world systems get destroyed, but that there is no end. There is no beginning and there is no end. Everything is just transformed in continuation with no death:
“He recalls to mind his various temporary states in days gone by – one birth, or two or three or four or five births, 10 or 20, 30 or 50, a 100 or a 1,000 or a 100,000 births, through many cycles of cosmic contraction and cosmic expansion . . . Now there comes a time, when sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period of contraction, this world-system passes away. And when this happens beings have mostly been re-born in the World of Radiance, and there they dwell made of mind, feeding on joy, radiating light from themselves, traversing the air, dwelling in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. Now there comes also a time, friends, when sooner or later, this universe begins to re-evolve by expansion.” (The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya, Sutta Pitaka)
This quote from the Buddha is virtually exactly how modern scientists are describing the evolution and re-evolution of the universe.
In this huge universe to say that we are the only planet with any life on it, by the sheer size of the known universe appears to be not only ignorant, but also very foolish. Many people today believe that we have already been visited by alien forms of life. Erich Von Daniken in his books In Search of The Gods, describes evidence that ancient humans were visited by aliens and this is how many of the personal- God concepts arose. For example, he discovered some traditional societies who worship a personal-God and from best accounts have been doing so for many generations. The image that they have for their personal-God looks virtually identical to some sort of being in an astronaut type suit. (Von Daniken, 1989)
Regardless if we accept the theory that we have been visited by aliens already or not, it is quite clear that there is life on other planets. At the very least to remain in agreement with science we must accept that there is life on other planets and they are like us, unable to travel many light years due to the lack of technology available on their planets.
Consider the following facts about our known universe:
- The nearest star to us, known as proxima centauri (star is a sun), is 4.22 light years away.
- A light year is the distance light travels in one year.
- Light travels (speed of light) at 186,000 miles per second (300,000 kilometers per second).
- There are one sextillion stars in the known universe. That number looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
- Our galaxy is approximately 100,000 light years from end-to-end.
If a space ship traveled at 100,000 miles per hour (161,000 kilometers per hour and much, much faster than any ship currently can do), it would take nearly 30,000 years to reach the nearest star. Most stars in our galaxy are about 2,500 light years away. At this speed it would take over 17 million years to reach most of the other stars.
Physics and Buddhism
The zen master, D. T. Suzuki, described emptiness as follows, “By emptiness of self-aspect or self-character, therefore, is meant that each particular object has no permanent and irreducible characteristics to be known as its own.” Modern physicist, David Bohm, repeats almost the same thing in scientific language with, “Quantum theory requires us to give up the idea that the electron, or any other object has, by itself, any intrinsic properties at all.” Einstein discussed space as follows, “According to general relativity, the concept of space detached from any physical content does not exist.” Compare these well learned people above to the words of Buddha, nearly 2,600 years ago: “If there is only empty space, with no suns nor planets in it, then space loses its substantiality.” (McFarlane, 2002)
The Buddha was always referring to the teachings and the doctrines in a very circular fashion. The concepts of re-birth, time itself, and the twelve parts to Dependant Origination are all cyclical. In science and in nature we see how the natural world works on cyclical procedures. The Buddha spoke of “beginningless time” and how there is no beginning. The Buddha said that “there is no first beginning, no first beginning is knowable.” Samyutta Nikaya 15.1-2
“Bhikkhus, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. There comes a time, bhikkhus, when the great oceans dry up and evaporates and no longer exists, when the earth burns up and perishes and no longer exists, but still I say, there is no making an end of suffering for those beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.” Samyutta Nikaya 22.99
Numerous books have been written on the relationship and compatibility of the natural sciences to Buddhism. Fritjof Capra has written the classic best seller, The Tao of Physics, in which he specifically writes to the many parallels between the Buddha’s teachings and modern physics, including, the unity of things, beyond opposites, relativity, and the dynamic universe. The Buddha also was talking about the inter-connection between mind and body thousands of years before famous medical doctors wrote best selling books saying the same things (such as Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Jack Weil, M.D.). A common phrase now is that “modern science is catching up with the ancient teachings of Buddhism.”
“The mind and body are dependent on each other the way two sheaves stand up by leaning against each other.” Samyutta Nikaya 2.14
When the Buddha spoke about different periods of history, he referred to the periods in terms of tens of thousands of years and in terms of physical, scientific periods as being millions of years. Later the fields of geology and physical anthropology would confirm these time periods of our cultural and physical history. When other ideas were floating around about the earth being six thousand years old, the Buddha was talking about these periods of time in millions of years and that there are several other planetary systems.
“An aeon is long, bhikkhu, the Blessed One said. It is more than several hundred thousand years. Suppose, bhikkhu, there was a great stone mountain a yojana long, a yojana wide, and a yojana high, without holes or crevices, one solid mass of rock. At the end of every hundred years a man would stroke it once with a piece of Kasian (very soft) cloth. That great stone mountain might by this effort be worn away and eliminated but the aeon would still have not come to an end. So long is an aeon, bhikkhu.” Samyutta Nikaya 15.5
The great translator of the Pali Canon, Dr. bhikkhu Bodhi, has estimated, based on the Buddha’s teachings that an aeon in the Buddhist scriptures is approximately one billion years. The Buddha has described different periods of time based on aeons in the same way scientists describe the natural world in terms of billions of years in the evolution of this planet and solar system.
Science and physics are fully compatible with the principles of Buddhism. Many scientists have generated a strong interest in Buddhism. The subject of a talk when receiving the Nobel prize in physics by Sir C. V. Raman was the life of the Buddha. (Jayasuriya, 1963) Albert Einstein said of Buddhism: “The religion of the future should transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both natural and 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 ever there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism.” (Einstein, from his writings quoted in Zen Mountain Monastery newsletter, 1989; although, no direct quote has been located to confirm that he ever said this, it may be a paraphrase of other quotes from Einstein that point to no personal god, no self, and his appreciation for Buddhism.)
Space-Time as Human Constructs
Time and space are relative and are human constructs, not Ultimate Reality. If we talk about a beginning, then what is before this beginning? If we talk about an end, then what is after that? If there is an end or edge to the universe then what is beyond that edge? Time is cyclical and a human construct. There can be no such thing as a creation story or an all powerful personal-God creator. The Buddha understood that there is Ultimate Truth and conventional truth. Our languages are limited and a part of conventional truth, that which helps us organize society and our lives, but it is not Ultimate Truth. The Buddha’s teachings have not had to change or adapt to comply with modern scientific discoveries, such as biological evolution, theory of relativity, etc.
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, with its famous equation: E = mc2 reveals that matter and energy are inter-changeable forms of the same substance. Einstein explained that time and space are dependent upon the observer. Time and space were no longer seen as separate entities, all of which fits with the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha spoke of the emptiness of both subject and object or the self and the world, just as Einstein stated that mass and length have definite values only when an observer is specified. Neither exists independent of the other and both are inseparable aspects of a single, non-dual reality. (McFarlane, 2002)
The theory of relativity also makes the point that time and locality in space can not be regarded independent if the observer and object are moving fast relative to each other. Observers moving differently will experience different speeds of time even when using the same watches. A “Universal” time does not exist. The Buddha knew about this when he described the different planes of existence and the differences in time based on location and relativity. He said that 50 human years is one night and day to the devas (gods or angels) of the Four Great Kings. Their life span is about 500 years in their “time” which is about 9 million in human, earth years. In the deva plane of wielding power over others’ creations, one day is 1,600 years and their lifespan is 16,000 years. In human, earth time this is about 9.2 billion years. (Anguttara Nikaya 3.71, Sutta Pitaka)
- The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained. David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006.
- Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Toronto: Bantam Books, second ed., 1984.
- Jayasuriya, W. F., M.D. The Psychology and Philosophy of Buddhism. Jalan Berhala, Malaysia: Buddhist Publication Society, 1963.
- McFarlane, Thomas J., Ed. Einstein and Buddha; The Parallel Sayings. Berkeley, California: Seastone, 2002.
- Von Daniken, Erich. In Search of the Gods. New York: Avenel Books, 1989.