The Meeting Point of the East and the West

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Eastern Knowledge and Western Science

As for what are the meeting points between the East and the West, I think already thirty or forty years ago I mentioned on one occasion that Eastern knowledge, mainly here in India – specifically knowledge about emotions and about the mind – is quite detailed; and this is because there is the practice of samadhi [absorbed concentration] and vipashyana [an exceptionally perceptive mind]. These are not based on faith or devotion; they’re for training our minds. Naturally any teaching with the practice of samadhi and the practice of vipashyana will have an explanation about the mind: how mind works, how emotion works.

Then also in Buddhism there is prajna or wisdom [discriminating awareness], and also in Buddhism the key view is selflessness or anatma theory. So in order to debate about anatma theory, naturally you need a more detailed understanding about ignorance and about distorted views. And for distorted views, the only counterforce is right view, not prayer, not just mere meditation. Then in Tantrayana there is the discussion of the different levels of mental states – the awakened state, dream state, deep sleep state, or the state at the time of fainting. [These are all examples of Eastern knowledge about the mind.]

Of course science comes from the West. The scientists, in most cases, come from a Judeo-Christian background, so naturally they don’t pay much attention to mind and emotions and these kinds of things. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the practice level is the same [as in Eastern religions] – the practice of compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, and also contentment and self-discipline. This is the same in all the major religions. Where these religions differ is in the ways to promote these basic human values.

There are religions that are based on faith in a creator, including those Hindu traditions [that accept a creator]; and because ultimately everything depends on the creator, faith alone is sufficient. In order to reduce your self-centered attitude, you need tremendous faith in God the creator. You’re totally submitted to God. That reduces your self-centered attitude. Whereas Buddhism has no concept of a creator – also Jainism and also one part of Samkhya has no creator – therefore you yourself make effort to change your mind. It’s not possible to change these things through prayer.

People eventually developed religious faith over at least the last three or four thousand years. Whenever they met with difficulties, they would pray and put their hope in the creator or God or put their faith in Buddha. Like the Tibetans – we just put our faith in Buddha, but were negligent about our human-level actions. So that’s why we lost our own country, isn’t it?

So for the last several thousand years – I think at least four or five thousand years – people have placed their ultimate hope and faith in God. But now, over the last two centuries, science and technology have developed and begun to fulfill many of our hopes. For the last thousand years, we totally relied on faith; but now, without faith, concrete results are being produced by science and technology. People, including Eastern people, are relying on science and technology, and it’s right that many are attracted to them.

But since the later part of the twentieth century, more and more people are experiencing the limitations of having only material values. Material objects provide us with physical comforts and really give us some kind of satisfaction on a sensorial level, but not on a real mental level. If you compare mental-level experience and sensorial-level experience, mental-level experience is much more serious. We’ve all experienced that when our mental state is happy and calm, our physical pain can subdue. But physical comfort can’t subdue our mental state when we have too much mental pain, too much worry. So obviously our mental state is more serious.

More and more doctors and scientists are realizing our mental state is very, very important for our heath. A healthy mind is very much related with a healthy body. But a healthy mind can’t be produced by medicine or alcohol or drugs. A healthy mind can’t be given by injection or bought from the supermarket. A healthy mind must develop within the mind itself – from faith to some extent; but no, not really. Genuine conviction can come only through research and investigation.

So I feel the point of the East and the West meeting isn’t for religious reasons, but simply for the science of mind.

Scientific Aspects of the Nalanda Tradition

I’ve been engaged with meeting scientists for the last thirty years. At the beginning – I think forty years ago – I expressed to some of my friends that I wanted to have a dialogue with scientists. One American lady told me, “Science is the killer of religion. Be careful.” But then I thought about the Nalanda tradition. They would investigate and experiment with the teachings, and if they found any contradiction they would literally reject Buddha’s own words. Buddha himself also made clear: “None of my followers should accept my teachings out of faith, out of devotion, but rather through thorough investigation and experiment.” These masters took the liberty to carry out investigation even into Buddha’s own words. And so we have the Tibetan words drangdon (drang-don) and ngedon (nges-don) – the provisional teachings [interpretable teachings] and definitive ones. So therefore I realized the emphasis of the Nalanda tradition was on investigation rather than faith.

The whole Buddhist system is based on reality, today’s reality. The two truths [superficial and deepest] are explanations about reality. Then according to that reality, we can make the distinction of wrong view and right view. So in order to prove these are wrong views, we have to investigate what is reality. There is always a gap between appearances and reality. Many wrong views are based on appearances, and most destructive emotions come from wrong view – grasping, self-grasping. So on that basis, we have the idea of the four noble truths. Just relying on Buddha’s word, saying, “Oh, Buddha stated the four noble truths,” is wrong. We have to prove the four noble truths. We have to know the real system or structure of the four noble truths.

So therefore I realized science is also trying to seek the reality, the truth, but of course in a different field. Buddhists are also trying to seek reality. I think both are truly implementing the famous Deng Xiaoping statement: “Seek truth from facts.” Both traditions through investigation try to seek the truth, the facts. So therefore I realized there is no contradiction. The scientific way of approach, of investigation, is to keep a skeptical attitude. Buddhism is exactly the same.

Making a Distinction between Buddhist Science, Buddhist Philosophy, and Buddhist Religion

Since our meetings and conferences with scientists, some people have used the words: “The meeting of science and Buddhism,” but this is wrong. We are not discussing with scientists about Buddhism, only about Buddhist science. So I made a distinction between Buddhist science [science coming from Buddhist literature], philosophy coming from Buddhist literature, and Buddhism. So Buddhism is for Buddhists; Buddhist science and Buddhist philosophy are universal.

I feel that already there’s been some sort of meeting of East and West. Western top scientists are now really paying much attention to the value of training our minds, because this is very important and very relevant for our health, whether for society, families, or individuals. Like at Wisconsin University, under the leadership of Richard Davidson. He has already carried out some special programs about training the mind, these sorts of things; and also Stanford University, the last few years. I have just visited them. All their experiments are really wonderful research. And then Emory University. So, like that, these are nothing to do with religion. It’s simply trying to take some of the information that comes from Buddhist texts to use as a scientific method to train our minds, to strengthen the basic good qualities of our minds [like compassion and affection] that come from our mothers.

So, like that, I think that’s the proper place for the East and the West to meet. That’s my feeling. Not religion, just science.