Buddhist Philosophy
The Science of Compassion
Dr. Akong Tulku Rinp
04/08/2011 01:47 (GMT+7)
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The Buddha was Scientific

What the Buddha taught was not based upon divine revelation or some other source of superior authority. All his teachings derived directly from his own personal experience that arose from his compassionate efforts to relieve the sufferings of beings. During the years of his meditation and reflection, he directly observed his own mind with the precision and objective exactness that we have now come to associate with scientific research. He witnessed and described the origin and functions of his own consciousness, and explained in detail how he transcended it to discover what lies beyond its limitations. The state he experienced is of course indescribable because it is beyond concept, but the Buddha nevertheless did his best to guide beings towards it. In doing this he constantly stressed that his teachings were not to be taken as words of authority to be propagated as beliefs; they were offered as practical guidelines to be studied, tested and applied, on the basis that what worked for him could work for all of us.

If we look for example at the Kalama Sutta, we find an instance of the Buddha’s insistence on scientific investigation, rather than a reliance on faith, authority or speculation:

Do not believe just because wise men say so. Do not believe just because it has always been that way. Do not believe just because others may believe so. Examine and experience yourself.

We could say that the Buddha was a pragmatic scientist who developed a compassionate science of the mind, based not upon measurements of external phenomena or mathematical equations, but upon direct observation of his own experience. In view of this it is not surprising that Albert Einstein commented:

“If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that Buddhist and scientists have much in common – particularly their search for the truth of how things really are1. What is interesting is that they approach this question from opposite perspectives. Buddhists, we could say, do it from the inside moving out, because they begin with direct observation of the mind and its workings, and then describe what this reveals about the reality of the external world we seem to see and experience in common. Scientists on the other hand begin with this “obvious” world and subject it to scrutiny by various means. Within the last century, scientific methods of investigation have started on the “outside” and move inwards to the realms of the mind, consciousness and the structure of what we call reality – that is, the world we see that seems so solid and stable but turns out upon analysis to be nothing of the sort. So science has moved progressively closer to Buddhism, rather than away from it, and in doing so has presented the world with similar insights to those of the Buddha, but in different language.

There are two areas in particular which are of interest:

First, the nature of the physical reality we perceive, and second, the functioning of consciousness in relation to the brain, and the potential for positive transformation.

1 One translation of the term “Buddha Dharma” is “the way things are according to the Buddha”.

The Nature of Physical Reality

Are things what they seem?

The Buddha discovered that things are not always the way they seem to be. The universe, he said, is a projection of the mind – at the collective and individual level. At first glance this statement does not make sense because what we see and experience seems to contradict it. But a parallel from scientific discovery might help us to take a first step towards understanding what the Buddha meant.

All matter, we are told, regardless of how solid and substantial it looks, is actually more than 99% space. It is made up of molecules that exist in relation to one another, but do not even touch. In fact they are about as widely spaced as the suns and planets of our Milky Way. If this is the case, how is it that things look so solid and dense?

The answer seems too be that the aspect of our consciousness mediated by the left hemisphere of the brain causes us to perceive what is there as solid and clearly defined, even though that is not so. If the left hemisphere stops functioning – for example in the event of a massive stroke – our perception of the world around us changes radically because we experience only that aspect of consciousness mediated by the right hemisphere. This was described by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor who had such a stroke1.

…….I was aware that I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself as a whole object separate from everything; instead, I now blended in with the space and flow around me….. (p42)

…….the boundaries of my earthly body dissolved and I melted into the universe….my perception was released from its attachment to categorization and detail (p49)…my brain could no longer distinguish writing as writing, instead, the card looked like an abstract tapestry of pixels. (p.57)

This suggests that at one level we have the potential to perceive things as not solid, separate entities, but as a fluid blending together of matter. Right hemisphere consciousness sees and experiences things more in accordance with the reality described by scientists. This level of perception seems to be relatively passive, because there is no sense of controlling, directing or intervening. Nor is there any sense there being a “me” present to do anything. However, it seems that the left hemisphere consciousness overshadows this and projects a more solid, definite and personalised vision of what there is. In doing so it also projects a strong sense of “me” being present to have the experience, be important and so on.

Quite clearly, therefore, our experience of what we call reality is not determined by external objective factors. It is a product of perception. This was amusingly demonstrated by a stage hypnotist who hypnotised a group of volunteers and gave each one bar of soap telling them they were holding delicious apples. They proceeded to eat their “apples” with great enjoyment, even commenting on how sweet and juicy they were.

Buddhist Scientfic View

The understanding that things are not what they appear to be is a fundamental feature of Buddhist philosophy and logic – Buddhist scientific view, if you like.

The Buddha taught that reality consists of two levels or dimensions: what he called “relative” and “ultimate”. The relative world is the one we see and know and experience at this moment, and is characterised by the mode of perception we associate with the left brain: it is dominated by a belief in duality: “me” here and everything else separate from me and over there; a strong all-pervasive sense of “me” being here as the subject of all experience; all objects (including ourselves) being separate and having discernable, independent and enduring identity, that is separate and stand-alone; and, finally, a conviction that time is linear: that there is past, present and future. We humans, the Buddha said, are trapped in this relative world simply because left-brain perception has convinced us that it is the only reality. It is our conviction in the accuracy of this perception that causes us to experience it as real.

1 Jill Bolte Taylor PhD: “My Stroke of Light”

The reality of this situation is what Buddha called ultimate, and it is more in accordance with right brain perception: no linear time, no separate, enduring “me”, no dividing lines and so on.

However, just as the left brain version of reality overshadows and obscures that of the right brain, so for most of us the relative view supersedes the ultimate, and so we are trapped in the relative world and suffer the consequences of that entrapment. This observation is very important because it explains why we suffer when we don’t need to; quite simply, if we believe there is a separate “me” here, then there is someone who can suffer if things don’t go his or her way. Without the idea of a separate “me”, there would be nobody to suffer.

If we could free ourselves from this egocentric view, we would free ourselves from the cause of our suffering. This sounds easy, but of course it is not, because our belief in the reality of egocentric reality is absolute and unshakeable. We not only believe in the reality of this separate “me” and cling tenaciously to it, but we also fear and resist the idea that it may not exist because we see annihilation as the only alternative.

Buddhism tackles this problem from two directions: first through meditation, and second through analysis.


If we are able to stabilize our minds, our focus of consciousness shifts – perhaps from left to right brain. As a consequence the meditator experiences a diminishing sense of self and all that is associated with it. With continued meditation this sense of self vanishes altogether, revealing what we would call “right brain consciousness” with its limitless “no separate self and other” qualities and all the non-dual states that are a part of it. Far from experiencing annihilation, the meditator experiences a sense of limitless completion and interconnectedness that is totally devoid of egocentric focus. This state has traditionally been described as “empty” because it is without sense of self; it is “empty of self”. It is also without any sense of anything having any enduring, separate identity. Everything exists in a state of constant change. Nothing is solid or fixed. This is the basis of the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. Because the term implies a negative sense of annihilation, many Buddhists have searched for an alternative to show that in order to be empty, you have to be there!

Emptiness does not mean non-existence: it means empty of separate, permanent self. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche prefers the term “completeness” because, he says:

When we experience it we feel complete, and realise that the sense of self in fact, causes a limitation of what we are actually able to experience.1

Other Buddhists have emphasised that we must understand emptiness and dependent arising together. We are empty of separate self, because we are full of the whole universe. A rose is not a rose: a rose is full of non-rose elements.

Therefore, through meditation, we find a path away from egocentric enslavement, towards freedom and compassion.


The second approach to freedom from the egocentric view of reality is through philosophical analysis of the theory of emptiness. This is based on the recognition that there is a fundamental difference between the way we see the world and the way it is. Our perception is that we are individuals, separate from the elements of the world that surrounds us; we are independent, each with distinct characteristics and a central core. Inevitably, this sense of self gives rise to the formation of attachments, prejudices and habits such as clinging and “possessiveness”. Through reasoning and analysis we can free ourselves from this `relative` reality and achieve `emptiness`: a total absence of self which no longer limits our possible experience and gives us the compassion to work for the benefit of other beings.

1 Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Mind beyond Death

Such a mind of desire, hatred, hope and fear, something to be accepted, and something to be rejected – all of these different aspects of thoughts, concepts and clinging will naturally be overcome through analysis and the view of shunyata, or `emptiness`(non solid existence).

Through the wisdom of understanding, the wisdom of experience and the wisdom and realization of shunyata, one can totally transcend all the inherent stress involved with the eight worldly dharmas of gain and loss; fame and insignificance; praise and criticism, slander or contempt, joy and sadness.1

Not surprisingly, the main correspondences between Buddhism and science have been found in this area, probably because both are asking the same question – “What is the true nature of reality?”

The Philosophical Traditions

Out of these teachings, four major analytical philosophical schools emerged, one of them called Madhyamaka.They hold that objects are made up of very small, truly existing, invisible particles.

This same view was the beginning of the formulation of the Atomic Theory, in which it was maintained that all chemical substances are composed of particles that are invisible elementary constituents called atoms. Atoms were believed to be the smallest irreducible particles of a chemical substance, and for roughly 100 years students assumed that the atom could not be split. Scientists were catching up with Buddhist atomic philosophers, but they hadn’t quite reached the speculative Buddhist theories recorded in the 4th century CE where we find a discussion of the physical size of different atoms.

Madhyamaka, Sub-atomic Theory and Quantum Physics

Madhyamaka reasoning took a further step and sought to establish that the mind is empty:

We search for the mind, and we are unable to find it……because it has no real nature, no true existence…

Madhyamaka reasoning is in harmony with the teachings of emptiness, (shunyata) expounded in the Heart Sutra, where we learn that no phenomena, either matter or mind, possess permanent, immutable or intrinsic nature.

Although atoms were thought to be the smallest building blocks of matter up until the late 19th century CE, the Rutherford experiment of 1909 indicated that atoms were made up of a small nucleus (later found to be made of neutrons and protons) surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Later experiments discovered many new particles, which were created when neutrons and protons collided; and in 1963 it was postulated that these particles could be made of even smaller particles called quarks. This idea was substantiated when quark-anti-quark pairs were produced. The quarks and leptons and gauge bosons that are responsible for the forces between these particles are what are now called “elementary particles”.

Scientists in the 1990’s suggested that these elementary particles could be thought of as vibrations of a one-dimensional extended string. The string vibrates at different frequencies, which determine the mass of the elementary particles. So one finds that the elements that make up our conventional world can be broken into further constituents that can transmute into each other and which have properties that are quite different from the matter that we see with our eyes. In that sense the matter that we experience in our everyday lives lacks inherent existence and cannot be said to be permanent, immutable, and a substantial entity. Also, because quantum mechanics governs the behaviour of sub-atomic matter, the actual existence of these particles in a conventional sense depends on their being observed. So they exist only through interdependence.

1 Unpublished transcript of teaching by V.V. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche on Chapter 9 Bodhicharyavatara, by Shantideva, September 1991

This is the second way in which the matter we experience in our daily life is not truly existent. Once again, science is following where Buddhist philosophers have been, and is in harmony with the Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada): that all phenomena are dependently co-arisen from their fundamental elements or conditions, and have no enduring, independent identity of their own. They are empty of self (existing on their own accord).

We search for the mind, and we are unable to find it…because it has no real nature, no true existence….

This brief analysis of Buddhist and scientific views of reality reveals that both systems, while using vastly different methods of investigation, have made almost identical discoveries: the nature of the world around us is not what it appears to be. To the scientist this is interesting for a variety of materialistic reasons. To the Buddhist it is an important ingredient of the philosophy of freedom. If there is nobody here to grasp and nothing enduring to be grasped, then why not give up grasping and experience the relief and joy that come with it?

Perhaps for members of technological societies, the empirical evidence of science will be an encouragement to rely with greater confidence on their own discoveries through meditation.

Neuroscience Confirms Positive Effects of Meditation

The ground of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion. Students of Tibetan Buddhism are trained to develop a combination of compassion and intention called Bodhicitta. 1 All meditation and mind-training is inspired by this motivation on the understanding that enlightenment is not possible without it. Methods are graduated, working on the principle that sustained and repeated mind-training exercises produce cumulative changes over time – as with physical training.

Tranquillity (mindfulness) meditation is the foundation for all practices. In time the mind settles, becomes tranquil, and gives rise to stability, clarity and deepening levels of happiness.

During most training students report changes, not only at a psychological level, but also physically and neurologically. Almost standard amongst changes reported are increased feelings of happiness, joy, clarity and peace, often followed by a diminishing sense of “me”, and a loss of feeling separate from others. This can be followed by a feeling of expansiveness which becomes limitless, finally taking the meditator into a state of bliss and clarity where any sense of duality of limitation is lost.

These descriptions by meditators indicate that profound transformations of consciousness are brought about by the process, which is what it is designed to do. Now science is enabling us to ascertain how these changes manifest in the brain and actually change the physical structure of the brain.

During the past 20 years neuroscientists have shown great interest in the effects of meditation. In 2002 extensive tests were performed on eight long-term Buddhist meditators by an American team of top neuroscientists.1 These were highly sophisticated tests capturing a moment-by-moment record of changing levels of activity in different areas of the brain.

One of the long-term meditators was prone to severe panic attacks as a child. The fact that within claustrophobic space of the MRI scanner he could focus his mind on an altruistic and compassionate state confirmed the result of his training in meditation.

In one of the tests, brain activity during compassionate meditation was measured in meditators and a control group. The measurement of activation in the area of the brain stimulated by maternal love and empathy was significantly higher in the meditator group. In addition, the measurements of the long-term meditators were so much higher than in the control group that the laboratory technicians suspected that there was a malfunction of the recording machinery. In 2005, Time magazine interviewed Richard Davidson2 about these exciting results. He admitted: “We didn’t expect to see anything quite that dramatic.”

This piece of research is a small sample of a rapidly increasing body of evidence which establishes that there is an intricate interaction between how we use our minds and what happens to the brain.

1 Study reported in PNAS, November 16th, 2004. Vol 101 No 46 16373: Long-term meditators self-induced high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice.

2 Richard Davidson: Neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One of the studied meditators comments,

Through the patient tutoring of experts in the fields of psychology and neuroscience….I’ve begun to recognize why, from an objectively scientific perspective, the practices actually work: those feelings of limitation, anxiety, fear, and so on are just so much neuronal gossip. They are, in essence, habits, and habits can be unlearned.1


Neuroscientists have confirmed that through meditation changes can take place that improve our health and our sense of well-being. It is encouraging and refreshing to realise that what the Buddha taught more than 2500 years ago is now being brought to the 21st century in the scientific language of our time. Not only does this enrich and give a profound perspective to what could otherwise be a cold and soulless discipline, but it also de-mystifies ancient teachings which describe states of consciousness in language that seems to place them beyond our reach. When presented in the language in our time we begin to realise that we are as capable now of treading the path to enlightenment and compassion as the Lord Buddha and his disciples were thousands of years ago. It is simply that today our methods may be different.

Observing mind and doing mind training is possible for everyone. It makes a person more mature and develops their loving kindness and compassion. Inner peace can be reached! Less mistakes are made and this positively influences a person’s family, then - his or her neighbours and through this the environment and ultimately the world.

The world is influenced by human beings. So, if we want to change the world into a compassionate and positive place, then each one of us has to change individually and positively. This can be done through facing, accepting and dealing with our emotions.

Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche

The 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Urgyen Drodul Tinley Dorje,ROKPA's founder

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