The Buddha as Scientist
Posted on August 12th, 2013

Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri (writing from Canada) 

 To call the Buddha a Scientist  may come as a surprise to many, including well-intentioned Buddhists.

Webster’s defines a Scientist as “a specialist in science, especially as natural science”. To be “ƒ”¹…”scientific’ is  to be “systematic and exact”  and be  “trained in following or observing the principles and methods of science”.  Part of this method is that   conclusions are arrived at after the fact, i.e., objectively.

So how does the Buddha pan out?

What natural science is he a specialist of? Of course, the “ƒ”¹…”sentient being’ “”…” one with senses. This is the Buddha’s term for both humans and animals. How much more “ƒ”¹…”natural’ can you get?

Anagarika Dharmapala visiting his class at Harvard,  it was  the American Historian of Religions, William James, who said in the 1890’s that Buddhism was the Psychology of the future. While Aristotle allows only five senses,   the Buddha, two centuries his senior,   gives us a sixth,   the mind. While Western medicine treats the body, the Buddha treats the mindbody. His point is simple. There is no matter without mind, and no mind without matter, no matter which way you look  at it, mind you!  Thus he calls a sentient being a Psychophysique, i.e., Mindbody (namarupa).

It is in this “ƒ”¹…”fathom-long body,  with perception and mind’ that he posits the world. That is to say that what   has not been experienced through one or more of the six senses is not part of that individual’s universe. That is not to say that Canada, e.g.,  doesn’t exist. While it exists for me now, from sea to open sea, in fact, it didn’t, for me, before I set foot on it nearly five decades ago. It was  not part of my universe! Toronto, our present home, was not in my eyes to see.

This means that any and every thing relating to a sentient being can be totally explained in terms of this mutual mind-body  relationship. A scientist would pitch in to say, “Oh, like, in the DNA, the life of the party of  every cell, proteins and amino acid feeding upon each other”. There is nothing outside of the mindbody, no puppeteer, i.e.,  a “ƒ”¹…”soul’, that would be required.  Thus he teaches “ƒ”¹…”asoulity’ (anatta), i.e., no soul.  Everything changes (anicca).

Extending the “ƒ”¹…”no puppeteer’ model to the universe naturally suggests no need for  a Creator God either. With no God and no Soul, it should hardly be surprising that the Secularist  Dawkins keeps Buddhism out of the pages of his vitriolic work, The God Delusion.

As for exactness, for all the pages of texts, 15 times the size of the Bible making up the Tipitaka “ƒ”¹…”Three Baskets’,  the Buddha says that he teaches only two things: suffering and the way out of suffering. And each is captured by a single word: dukkha “ƒ”¹…”suffering’, magga “ƒ”¹…”path’. Precise,  and short and simple, exactly as in Science.

His training relates to the mind. For over six years.  How rigorous? Having come from a life of indulgence of a Prince, he  goes to the other extreme,   depriving himself of even a morsel  of food. Trying to shut out breathing itself,   and   nearly dying,   he swiftly snaps out to return to normalcy, arriving at his  famous Middle Path. Training further, he arrives at a total objectivity, reaching  “ƒ”¹…”Cessation of Perception’, erasing  all received learning  and thought. Mind now a carte blanche “ƒ”¹…”empty slate’,   let  reality roll in!

As for  objectivity,  detachment is the very essence of being the Buddha. He is the “ƒ”¹…”Worthy One’, i.e., Arahant,   precisely because he has jettisoned attachment, along with anger and ignorance of reality.

The Buddha also speaks the language of Science. “Do not accept anything because of hearsay, it is in the tradition or in   texts, “¦. nor even in the thought, “ƒ”¹…”This is my Teacher’,  but only when you’re convinced for yourself'” (Kalama Discourse).  Did you say a Charter of Free Enquiry?

While the Buddha thus can   be said to be a Scientist in every sense of the word, he can also be said to surpass a  Scientist. While classical Physics gives way to   quantum Physics and body  medicine gives way to mindbody medicine,  his discoveries have stood the test of time for  a full 2500 years.

While Science pays no attention to an ethical dimension, the Buddha’s raison d’etre  is to provide  a base for ethical living (sila).

We have drawn  attention to the Buddha’s scientificity firstly to educate ourselves out of some myths about   the historical Buddha as an exclusive Religious Teacher.  While he   indeed is that,  his Teachings are based in a sound analysis of reality,  not in any speculation or philosophizing.

This also explains why  his Teachings have stood the test of time with a perfect score.

Thirdly,   it is to understand why  more than his  devotees,  including  the secular, both  Scientist  and  non-Scientist,  continue to be attracted to his Teachings and Discoveries.

Einstein’s take on  Buddhism as  “The Religion of the future” speaks volumes:

“The Religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend a personal God and avoid dogmas 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”.

 (This piece was written in appreciation of  a Proclamation  by  the Mayor of Toronto, recognizing May 24th,, 2013, as “ƒ”¹…”Wesak Day’, a first in Canada. It is now being published in commemoration of an initiative of the Buddhist Council of Canada  – Windows to Buddhism in the Academy, a Display of Books on Buddhism from the perspectives such as Science, Psychology, Psychotherapy and Women’s Studies, among others,  at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto, running through July and August.)

(Fulbright scholar, and formerly of the Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College, University of Toronto, Prof. Sugunasiri is the author of Your’re What You Sense: Buddha on Mindbody,  and  is currently the President, Buddhist Council of Canada.)

4 Responses to “The Buddha as Scientist”

  1. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    A small bit of advice to Prof. Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, the writer of this article that it would be much appreciated if Professor Sugunasiri shares his knowledge with Wikipedia. Too many people believe that the orb above the head of the Buddha is a “top knot”. As Professor Sugunasiri knows more than I it is not. Prince Siddhartha cut the royal knot when he departed Lumbini and that “orb” is called the “Usnia” or a divine protuberance that exemplifies Siddhartha reaching Buddha hood.
    When I Googled the Wikipedia on this issue it had hardly any information and requested those who knew of this aspect of the Buddha to contribute. Being the oldest Buddhist nation outside of India I believe it is the duty of Professor Sugunasiri or the Buddhist scholars of Sri Lanka to edit the Wikipedia on all aspects of Buddhism.

  2. douglas Says:

    Dear Prof. Sugunasiri: Thank you for your scholarly presentation. An urgent request to you:

    Could you please tell all the “Scholars” who excel in teaching and training Buddha Dhamma to do their best to give birth to more of “Buddhas” than the “Buddhists”. The Buddhists we find now a days are “plastic”. This world urgently needs “Buddhas” who have followed and practiced the “WAY” (PATH) in their day to day living to make this planet Earth a peaceful and beautiful place to live. The trouble is “Buddhists” have amazingly out-numbered the “Buddhas”.

    Thank you.

  3. Senevirath Says:




    “”vinayak nethi naweena batahira vidyawa samaga budu dahama sasadanna kohethma behe> bata hira naveena vidyava vidyavak nowe. eyata vidyava keemada vidya naamayata nigavaki””””

  4. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

    Imagination, projection, hallucination and illusion are all parts of the mind. Mind is the world — and going beyond the mind is the beginning of God.

    If a Catholic, a Hindu and a Muslim get too drunk, will there be any distinction, differentiation between their drunkenness The Catholic will behave as foolishly as the Hindu; and the Hindu will behave as stupidly as the Muslim. Once they are drunk, they are drunk. Whether the pillow is blue or pink or white or red does not matter. Once you fall asleep, you fall asleep; the pillow becomes immaterial.

    Theology begins with a belief, with faith. And Buddhism begins with logic and reason. Buddhism is thinking; theology is believing without thinking. No religion allows thinking, so no religion has a philosophy: they all have theologies.
    Christianity says “believe” — believe in the savior, believe in Jesus Christ, believe that he is the only begotten son of God, believe in God, believe in the trinity. But it is always “believe,” and believing makes a man a hypocrite, because deep down you know that belief cannot become a truth. Deep down you know that this is only a belief; you have not experienced it. There is no base for it, it is baseless: a single doubt and the whole edifice will be shattered on the ground.

    Now, a Christian believes that Jesus is born of a virgin mother. Can you think about it? If you think, doubt will be needed. You can only believe, and in believing… you know perfectly well that it is unnatural, it cannot happen.

    Christianity says that Jesus was resurrected after his death. You have to believe it because there is no proof, no evidence. In the contemporary literature of Jesus Christ’s life, even the name of Jesus is not mentioned. Do you think a phenomenon like a man getting crucified, getting resurrected, would go unnoticed? that a man who brings dead people to life would not be reported anywhere? that a man who walks on water…?

    Do you think this man would have been crucified? He would have been hailed as the messiah by the Jews themselves, because what more do you want? — none of your other prophets have done anything of this kind. But there is not even a mention that there was such a person as Jesus Christ. And he did not have a big following.
    If you think, you cannot believe in these things. If you think about God, you cannot believe. So Christianity has no philosophy. No religion can afford to be philosophical; it can only remain theological.

    All the organized religions care basically depriving humanity of religion because they are misdirecting you. They are always directing you outwards — their God is far away in the sky. And when you pray, folding your hands towards the sky, you don’t realize that there is nobody to hear you.

    In fact, the one who is praying, the one who is alive in you, the one who is breathing in you, is the God.

    You have just to discover it.

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