Buddhism is the Science of the Mind

by | May 23, 2024 | Buddhism for All

While Buddhist civilizations did not give birth to modern science, Buddhism can justifiably be called the “Science of the Mind”, as the Dalai Lama has done.  That is because the entirety of one’s Buddhist training can be thought of as repeated applications of the scientific method.

The application of the scientific method begins with a question and a hypothesis, and then the construction of an experiment that can test the hypothesis, running the experiment to collect data, and analyzing to data to see if the hypothesis is verified, and if not (or not fully so), a new question emerges and the cycle continues. 

For example, let’s say the question is: does gravity apply to everything equally?  One hypothesis that can arise from this question is: earth’s gravity applies equal acceleration to all objects falling to earth.  To test the hypothesis, you can try dropping two spheres of unequal weight from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  The data you’d need to collect is the time it takes for each sphere to land.  If the time for both spheres to land is the same, you can say the hypothesis is verified.  If you later drop a wooden ball and a feather, you will find the new data not supporting the supposedly-verified hypothesis.  That may lead to a new hypothesis: that air resistance causes the feather to fall at a much lower speed than predicted by gravity, and therefore, if you drop it in a vacuum, it will fall at the same rate as a wooden ball.  That new hypothesis can lead to a new experiment, and so on.

Essentially, using the scientific method, all questions are answered by collecting data from empirical observation.  This is true for physics, and it is also true for Buddhism.  If you are working with a teacher, for example, she might start by assigning you a hypothesis and experimental method.  For example, the hypothesis is as you settle attention on the breath, your mind becomes alert and relaxed, and the experimental method is to relax your body and repeatedly bring a wondering attention to the breath.  If you become alert and relaxed after a while, then the hypothesis is verified.  So, you try that out, and then you may come back to the teacher and say, “When I do that, I don’t become alert and relaxed, I fall asleep instead, so that hypothesis appears to be falsified.”  The teacher might then suggest a new parameter: maybe you’re falling asleep because you are sleep deprived, so do the same experiment again about 15 minutes after you get a full night’s sleep, and then see if the hypothesis holds.  And so on.  The Buddhist path includes a series of insights concerning the mind gained by repeatedly applying the scientific method to yourself. 

There is one essential attitude in Buddhism that also forms the foundation of the scientific method: not holding tightly to any view.  We saw earlier that right view is an extremely important part of the Noble Eightfold Path.  In the Buddha’s default formulation, it is the first part that guides the other seven, while in the highly popular Dhammadinnā formulation, right view is the cumulation of the other seven.  Either way, it is of central importance.  And even for something as vitally important as right view, the Buddha’s instruction is: don’t hold tightly onto it.

The teaching most illustrative of the Buddha’s attitude towards views is his simile of the raft.[1]  Suppose a man were to cross from one shore to another on a raft, he would be foolish to think, “This raft has been helpful to me for getting to this shore, therefore, I should hoist it on my back and take it wherever I go.”  A wise person would instead leave the raft where it is.  Similarly, the Dharma is only a tool to get from here to nirvana, and once you have arrived, you should be free to let it go.  Yes, even the Dharma itself is to be let go of.  The Buddha gave numerous discourses collected in the book called Sutta Nipāta that reinforces that point.  For example, an enlightened one does not grasp anything as supreme,[2] he does not grasp onto any view,[3] and he is not a “pursuer of views”.[4]

Why is this important?  Because Buddhism is essentially an insight tradition, and insights cannot be gained if you hold tightly on to pre-existing views.  For example, let’s say when the Dalai Lama read as a young person in the holy scriptures that say the earth is flat and Mount Meru is the center of the earth, and let’s say he holds tightly on to it because it comes directly from holy scriptures.  And then later he learns about conclusive scientific evidence that the earth is actually round.  If he had held on tightly to the pre-existing view, he would not be able to gain the insight that the earth is round.  For that reason, to gain insight all views must always be held lightly (including this one, of course).  That means:

  1. Knowing my views can always be wrong.
  2. Holding all my existing views as tentative, based only on currently available evidence.
  3. When I get new evidence, my views may change.
  4. Even when it is absolutely clear my views are correct, they may still be wrong.

The most spectacular example of [4], to me, is quantum physics versus Newtonian physics.  If you look at the laws of Newtonian physics before quantum physics was known, you can be absolutely sure of the correctness of Newtonian physics.  I mean, look, it perfectly predicts the motions of apples, planets and entire galaxies, how could it possibly be wrong in any way?  And then it turns out, the laws of physics function differently at the sub-atomic level.  If we had held on to Newtonian physics as the absolute truth, given how conclusive and unmistakable all the evidence was, we would never have gained quantum physics.

Buddhism is about gaining insights that lead to freedom from suffering.  Only by holding views very lightly at every stage can that happen.  If you do that, you may find yourself first becoming a skeptic, because you realize all views may be wrong.  A skeptic who is sufficiently thirsty for knowledge becomes an empiricist, because the only kind of knowledge that is satisfactory to a skeptic is the type backed by evidence.  And that is precisely what the Buddha encourages, starting with encouraging skepticism about himself, and then over time, based on your investigation of phenomena (which is, again, the second factor of enlightenment), building for yourself a portfolio of evidence-based knowledge to get you from here to nirvana.  For a skeptical empiricist gaining knowledge, the most natural method is the scientific method, and that is why the scientific method comes so naturally to Buddhism.

Dharma always beats dogma.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela:
    • In essence, views and the metaphor of the raft are like the fingers that point to the moon. They are not the moon or the true nature of reality and mind. Ultimately, our practice is to continuously bring awareness back to knowing our mind, the nature of suffering and be liberated from suffering. 
    • What stood out to you from this article? Why? 


[1] Majjhima Nikāya 22.

[2] Suddhaṭṭhaka Sutta (Sutta Nipāta 4.4, verse 8).

[3] Paramaṭṭhaka Sutta (Sutta Nipāta 4.5, verse 7).

[4] Mahābyūha Sutta (Sutta Nipāta 4.13, verse 17).

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Artwork by Colin Goh.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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