Buddhism: A Modern Perspective

“Gripped by fears
men go to the sacred mountains,
sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines”
– The Buddha

“Religion is based primarily upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly as the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.” thus commented Bertrand Russell on the origin of religion. On another perspective, we may say that religion arose in society in wonder and in pursuit of the basic question of a purpose of life in this world. However, most religions ended up with a belief in a higher authority and an appeal for love and worship of God. In the process the traditional religions seem to forget to explore the basic question.

In both these respects, Buddhism may be said to be an exception. Buddhism did not start to explore the metaphysical question of a purpose of life or of the Universe. Like Bertrand Russell, the Buddha himself recognized the point of fear and said, “Gripped by fear men go to the sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines.”

Buddhism started to take men away from fear to freedom and to find a solution to end the sufferings of humanity. It started from an experience of the human condition with an aspiration to transcend it. Buddhism does not believe in the concept that there is an operator called God who is turning the switches off and on to run the Universe and controlling our fete. So instead of praising an imaginary God, the Buddha exemplified the human virtues such as wisdom, compassion, courage, equanimity, selflessness, etc. as well as the right path of living that human should take. Instead of urging people to love and worship God, the Buddha urged people to love and serve the fellow men. He advised his disciplines with these memorable words, Go ye, O Bhikkhus, and wander forth for the gain of many, for the welfare of the many, (Bahujana sukhaya bahujana hitaya cha) in compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, for the welfare of gods and men.” In the process Buddhism showed how one can be enlightened and lead a happy life.

According to Buddhism the world has neither a beginning nor an end; nor does Buddhism believes in the Big Bang theory or a first cause. According to Buddhism the world systems always appear and disappear in the universe.

T.W. Rhys Davids commented, “Buddhism advocated a view in many respects far in advance of what had been reached and, for the matter of that, of what has even now been reached by average philosophic and religious mind.” Today the general attitude towards Buddhism is that it is very advanced, very rational and very sophisticated. Today most western scholars support the Buddhist views. Bertrand Russell stated, “Among the founders of all religions in this world, I respect only one man - the Buddha. The main reason was that the Buddha did not make statements regarding the origin of the world. The Buddha was the only teacher who realized the true nature of the world. As a student of comparative religion, I believe that Buddhism is the most perfect one the world has ever seen. The philosophy of the Buddha, the theory of evolution and the law of Kamma were far superior to any other creed.” Prof. Carl Gustav Jung, the psychologist stated, “The position of religions which advocate the view that the universe was created by god has become a difficult one to maintain in the light of modern and scientific knowledge.” Albert Einstein stated, "I do not belong to any religion. However if I am to identify myself with a religion, I would select Buddhism because it appeals to the wisdom of the mankind. …...If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism." He also said, “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.”

H. G. Wells the British historian and science writer commented, “The fundamental teachings of Gautama, as it is now being made plain to us by the study of original sources, is clear and simple and in the closest harmony with modern ideas. It is beyond all disputes the achievement of one of the most penetrating intelligences the world has ever known." He also commented, 'It is universally recognized that the universe in which we live, has to all appearance, existed for an enormous period of time and possibly for endless time. But that the universe, in which we live, has existed only for six or seven thousand years may be regarded as an altogether exploded idea. No life seems to have happened suddenly upon earth.'

Most scholars believe that overall Buddhism has done more for the advance of world civilization and true culture than any other influence in the chronicles of mankind. T.W. Rhys Davids wrote, “Buddhism has been adopted by the wild hordes on the cold table-lands of Nepal, Tartary and Tibet, by the cultured Chinese in their varying climes, in the peninsula of Korea, whence it spread to the islands of Japan, and by the Sinhalese and Siamese under palm groves of the south. It has penetrated on the west to the confines of Europe; on the north it numbers its adherents amid the snow and ice in Siberia; and in the Far East it was the dominant religion for centuries in the beautiful islands of the Javanese archipelago. Wherever it has gone it has been modified by the national characters and the inherited beliefs of its converts, acting upon the national tendencies within itself to alteration and decay, that it has developed, under these conditions, into strangely inconsistent and even antagonistic beliefs and practices. But each of its beliefs breathes more or less of the spirit of the system out of which they all alike have grown, and most interesting it is to trace the causes which have produced out of it such different results.”

In many respects Buddhism is unlike other traditional religions. One of the first thing that a westerner appreciates in Buddhism is that it is not culture bound, it is not bound to any particular society, race or ethnic group. There are certain religions such as Judaism and others that are culture-bound. Buddhism is not. That is why historically we have Indian Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Burmese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism and so forth. Buddhism moves very easily from one culture to another because the emphasis in Buddhism is on internal practice rather than on external rituals and practice. While most religions remained confined to specific cultures with specific scriptures, Buddhism spread to different cultures and have developed different doctrines based on original Buddha's teachings. One prime example is how mediation (dhyana in Sanskrit) went to China in the fifth century developed into Chen Buddhism. It then went to Japan where the beautiful Zen Buddhism was developed.

While other religions stopped exploring the basic question of the nature and purpose of the world, the Buddha with his great silence to the metaphysical question about the Universe, had actually kept open for humanity to explore the basic question. That is how Buddhism developed and has been developing. It has been defining the physical nature of the Universe. At the same time Buddhism is open to change based on new facts of science. As Dalai Lama said, if we find that some our doctrines do not conform to the facts of modern science, we are ready to change our doctrines. This is true at least in the basic fundamental levels of science. In higher levels of consciousness, the Law of Karma or rebirth etc., we may note that a scientist may not have the proper enlightenment that a Buddhist may have. To Dalai Lama, “From the Buddhist point of view, there is a further level of realty, which may remain obscure to the unenlightened mind.” Being open to change based on reasoning is one of the great dictums of Buddhism. It is also the only religion that encourages the followers not to believe anything without questioning. More than belief, Buddhism prescribes action. In the ‘Kalama Sutra', the Buddha was very specific:

  • Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.
  • Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
  • Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.
  • Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
  • Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
  • But after observation and analysis, when you find that it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and abide by it.

If we look closely at the Sutra, we will notice that Buddha’s approach to the problem of knowledge is very similar to the modern scientific approach. Here we see a striking parallel between the Buddhist approach and the approach of science to the problem of knowledge. Scientific investigations are done exactly in this way. The Buddhist approach stresses the importance of objective observation which is the key to the scientific method of knowledge. It is this objective observation on the part of the Buddha that yields the Four Noble Truths, the truths of suffering:

  • First Noble Truth – that there is sufferings in the human life;
  • Second noble truth – that there is a origin of suffering;
  • Third Noble Truth - the truth of the cessation of suffering; and the
  • Fourth Noble Truth - the Noble Eightfold Path of liberation from sufferings.

These truths are like scientific experiments in human life. This also applies to his prescription of the eightfold path of the Middle Way. If the two extremes - (indulgence of sensual pleasures and self-mortification) do not work, as found by his own experience, the Buddha came to the logical conclusion by his analysis and experience that the Middle Way is the only right way. And if we go inside the details of the Noble Eightfold Path, we will find that each of the eight elements is developed based on scientific analytical observation of experience. This experience in Buddhism is comprised of two components - the objective component and the subjective component.

Buddhism is noted for its analytical method in the area of philosophy and psychology. Buddhism even analyzed our common experience of observing an object into its basic elements of the five Skandhas or aggregates - form, feeling, perception, mental formation or volition and consciousness. These five constituent aggregates of observation can be investigated by modern scientific analysis and proved. The five aggregates in turn can be further analyzed into the eighteen elements (Dhatus) and we have a more elaborate analysis of seventy two elements. These elements can be analyzed through modern computer modeling and we will have a presentation of our experience of an object in minute details. When we do this we will get an idea how the phenomenon called experience actually work and will see that there is no such thing as 'self' by scientific analysis.

The teaching of the impermanence of nature of everything is one of the main pivots of Buddhism. According to Buddhism, everything exists from moment to moment. Everything is moving from birth to death. There is no being, - there is only a becoming. And this is true of the mightiest god of gods, as much as of tiniest material atom. Life is a mere flowing, continuous undivided movement of becoming. This also means that there cannot be a permanent soul as proposed by the Hindu-Christian doctrines. This Buddhist conception also conforms to basic science of modern day.

Buddhism is a rational religion based on the science of life with a wide spectrum. One one end of the spectrum we have the idea of Bhakti which has influenced and impressed the later Bhakti movement in Hinduism. On the other end of the spectrum Buddhist scholars dwells in the realm of Quantum mechanics with the modern astro-physicists of the world. It is this scientific analytical method of Buddhist doctrine (abhidharma) that has attracted western thinkers and academics to Buddhism. They are deeply interested in the Buddhist analysis of the various factors of experience - feeling, idea, habit and so forth and are now turning to Buddhist teachings to gain a greater insight into their own disciplines.

While science is science, Buddhism is religion based on science and is more than science. As conventional science still constitutes the governing force in the West as the near-absolute arbiter of truth, there is considerable appeal for linking of Buddhism to science or rather of science to Buddhism.

As an ancient tradition, Buddhism has many aspects that closely resemble practices in the Western scientific traditions and yet goes beyond the materialism of some Western traditions, beyond the limits of some understandings of the scientific traditions. In the western scientific tradition, the fundamental question, whether a materialistic worldview is an integral component of the scientific practice, is left to the scientist who is practicing science. In Buddhism, the opposite idealistic view is already an integral part. Outside these views, both Buddhism and contemporary science converse of precisely the same results, so that Buddhism and contemporary science may be said to be congruent in their aims, modes of investigation and conclusions. In fact, while the scientific discoveries resemble closely those of Buddhism, we find that in traditional science so far there is no path or method of achieving an inner transformation. In contemporary science, we have methods of building better buildings and machines but we have not had any system which will enable them to build better people. In this respect, we need to examine more closely to what extent the scientific paradigm actually would convey the meaning of Dharma.

Historically, the Western interest in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, coincided with the rise of modern science and the corresponding perceived decline of religious orthodoxy in the West. Modern scientific discoveries had undermined a literal interpretation of sacred scripture of most traditional religions. New disclosures from the respected disciplines of geology, biology, and astronomy challenged and shattered Biblical accounts of the origins of the natural world and our place and purpose in it. To put simply, modern science has created a spiritual crisis in the West that led to a split between faith and reason which is yet to be reconciled. Buddhism was looked upon to rescue the situation. So when a large number of Asian representatives of the Buddhist faith came to America to discuss the Buddhist perspective in the World’s Parliament of Religions held in 1893 in Chicago, the West was ready to listen. It was in the same Parliament; Swami Vivekananda delivered a talk of Hindu Vedanta. These Buddhist missionaries actively and impressively participated in an open forum with Western theologians, scientists, ministers, scholars, educators, and reformers. Thus, to a large extent Buddhism's flowering in the West during the last century came about to satisfy post-Darwinian needs to have religious beliefs grounded in new scientific truth.

Scholars in general expressed their optimism about this development. Bertrand Russell pointed to this shift at the end of World War II when he wrote, “If we are to feel at home in the world, we will have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring, I do not know. But I am convinced they will be profound and of the greatest importance.” By the mid-twentieth century this growing fascination with Asian thought led Arnold Toynbee to envision a new world civilization emerging from a convergence of East and West. He anticipated that the spiritual philosophies of Asia would touch profoundly on the three basic dimensions of human existence: social, psychological and physical.

This growing interest in Buddhism and these many areas of affinity between the teachings of the Buddha and the tendencies of modern science, philosophy and psychology have reached their apex at this very time in the suggestions now proposed by quantum physics, the latest developments in experimental theoretical physics. Here too we find that not only is the method of scientific observation, experiment and analysis are similar to those anticipated by the Buddha, but that some of the very specific conclusions about the nature of man and the universe that are indicated by the latest developments in quantum physics were also indicated by the Buddha. In fact, Buddhism shares with science the understanding of the theory of relativity. The Buddhist 'Heart Sutra' explains that: "Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form", which fits closely the theory of quantum physics, which asserts that matter and space are not different. A noted physicist, Henry Stapp not long ago tried to argue in his book, 'Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics' that the Universe is really something like a great thought. It is said in the Dhammapada that the mind precedes all things, that the mind is the maker of all mental states. Similarly, the relativity of matter and energy is mentioned, and there is no radical division between mind and matter. All these indications are now gradually being revealed by the latest developments in science. Even in cases where the conclusions are not exactly the same, there is an unmistakable resonence between insights into Buddhist emtyness and quantum physics.

Today scientists, historians, astronomers, biologists, botanists, anthropologists and great thinkers have all contributed vast new knowledge about the origin of the world. This latest discovery and knowledge is not at all contradictory to the Teachings of the Buddha. Buddhism and science have increasingly been discussed as compatible, and Buddhism has entered into the science and religion dialogue. The case is made that the philosophic and psychological teachings within Buddhism share commonalities with modern scientific and philosophic thought. For example, Buddhism encourages the impartial investigation of Nature (an activity referred to as Dhamaa-Vicaya in the Pali Canon) - the principal object of study being oneself. Some popular conceptions of Buddhism connect it to discourse regarding evolution, quantum theory and cosmology.

While the western academicians have a very strong positive view on Buddhism and the East, we have a dichotomy in our understanding of Buddhism or the perspective of Buddhism at other levels. We find with shock that a lot of people in the East still practice Buddhism as old fashioned way which is irrational and too much tied up with superstitions. We need to understand this apparent dichotomy. The problem is addressed by Stephen Batchelor in his book, ‘Alone with Others’. He correctly pointed out that, “The situation is characterized on the surface by a polarization into two groups: one consisting with those who follow the approach of the traditional Buddhist schools, and the other of those who approach Buddhism from the standpoint of the Western academic tradition.” The traditional schools follow historical Buddhism’s in different countries and cultures, where the followers take Buddhism as their ways of salvation based on thousands of years of tradition, requiring subjective involvement in their practice of Buddhism. Thus while in the Western perspective Buddhism has a certain sophisticated image, in the traditional perspective we have another negative image. This negative image that people have about Buddhism has to be changed before they can really come to appreciate the Buddha’s teachings in proper perspective, before they can get a kind of balanced perspective regarding Buddhism and it potential contribution to science.

What we need is to establish a new Buddhism in the West based on scientific basis with less subjective involvement and with more scientific analysis. That will be a new form of Buddhism for the future based on Western perspective. It is possible to do this because Buddhism can also be taken as a culture or object of scientific investigation. It is possible because Buddhism is not culture-bound. In Western academic standpoint, Buddhism is placed somewhat outside the observer so that it can be treated with scientific objectivity. We may call this Western Scientific Buddhism. We may leave the traditional religions to their own fete on which Bertrand Russell stated that “(Traditional) Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.....A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or fettering of the free intelligence by words uttered long ago by ignorant men.” What we need is a religion of the future based on scientific analysis. As noted by Albert Einstein, “The religion of future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas and theology, covering both natural, 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 to this description." H.G. Wells also predicted a future religion based on Buddhism. “Over great areas of the world it still survives. It is possible that in contact with Western science, and inspired by the spirit of history, the original teaching of Gautama, revived and purified, may yet play a large part in the direction of human destiny.”

This Western Scientific Buddhism will conform not only to modern science but also to world literature (poetry). Poetry like science speaks of the highest truth. Buddhism speaks of the truth and the reality of the human life. Let us take the subject of suffering. Many criticize Buddhism stating that it is a pessimistic religion because it talks about Suffering. However the fact is Buddhism address suffering because that is the reality of life.

Percy Bysshe Shelley the British poet wrote, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”.

We may see the following poem by Emily Dickinson which speaks the profound truth on the reality of human life which is suffering:

The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain -
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

Buddhism talks about suffering so that we know the reality of life so that we do not burry our heads under sand and think of something which is not true.

Another topic we may discuss is the subject “Is God relevant to our life? Or Do we need God?” Or if there is God do we need to love God. Buddhism answers this by its own doctrine that the basic purpose of life is to help others. Buddhist motto is “Be a lamp unto yourself and show the light unto others.” Buddhism has the character called Bodhisattva’ one who is ready for Buddha hood but who is holding his Buddhahood for service to others. Albert Einstein said, “It is only a life lived for others that is worth living.” We find a beautiful poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ - by James Leigh Hunt which exemplifies this character. God love him who loves others.

Arnold Toynbee once wrote that of all the historical changes in the West, the most important—and the one whose effects have been least understood—is the meeting of Buddhism in the Occident. . . . And when and if our era is considered in light of larger societal patterns and movements, there can be no doubt that the meeting of East and West, the mingling of the most ancient traditions in the modern world, will form a much larger part of history than we today with our political-economic emphases, may think. I think today we are at the beginning of that new age of enlightenment for the world civilization where Buddhism will play a much more important role in our life.


  1. Dalai Lama – The Universe in a Single Atom.
  2. Albert Einstein – Ideas and Opinions; Autobiographical Notes
  3. Bertrand Russell – History of Western Philosophy; Why I am not a Christian
  4. T.W. Rhys Davids – Buddhism-Its History and Literature
  5. Edward Thomas – History of Buddhist Thought
  6. H.G. Wells – Outline of World History
  7. Dr. Peter D santina – Fundamental of Buddhism
  8. Stephen Batchelor – ‘Alone with Others’; ‘Buddhism without Belief.’
  9. B. Alan Wallace (ed), - Buddhism and Science.
  10. Donald S. Lopez Jr - Buddhism and Science.
  11. The Dalai Lama - The Universe in a Single Atom
  12. Matthieu Ricard, Trinh Xuan Thuan,- The Quantum and the Lotus
  13. Henry Stapp - Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics.


More by :  Dr. Rajen Barua

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