Is Buddhism Scientific or Religious?

The following article is taken from one of the last lectures in our online course, Buddhism for beginners. John Dunne, Buddhist scholar and practitioner, presents the origins, teachings, and historical development of Buddhism in this course for beginners and beyond. Here he takes a closer look at the ongoing debate as to whether Buddhism should be viewed primarily as scientific or religious.


As early as the middle of the 19th century, various people tried to promote Buddhism as a scientist. The idea arose among various Asian intellectuals, some of whom rejected colonialism by demonstrating the strength of their culture. Later, Western Buddhists also promoted this claim. So is there any truth in this?

Lamas and the lab

One way to approach this question is to examine how the claim informed some useful dialogues between scientists and Buddhists, perhaps most notably His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. There are good reasons why these conversations work well.

First of all, Buddhism endorses the idea that if we want to prove something, we have to use empirical evidence. If there is a contradiction between what we can observe – either directly or through inferences based on perception – and what the Buddhist scriptures say, then we are supposed to reject the scriptures and follow what we have. empirically established. In other words, proof of our own experience and our own reasoning must be the touchstone.

There is an often quoted quote in Tibetan tradition (it was originally in Sanskrit) in which the Buddha said: “Just like a goldsmith tests to see if something is gold by touching it on a stone. of touch, in also, O monks, you must not accept my words until after having examined them and not out of respect for me.

Scripture is helpful, but it’s not what we ultimately need. In the context of Buddhism, what we really need are experiences, the kinds of experiences that transform our habits. Mere intellectual understanding is not enough. No matter how many of the Buddha’s speeches we read, it will never be an experience. So, from its earliest days, the tradition had an intrinsic meaning that although the discourses of the Buddha are necessary to teach the way, at some point we have to let go of this in favor of our own direct experience.

This is a way of saying that Buddhism is scientific. In our cultural history, to be scientific, in part, means turning away from the types of knowledge claims that we find supported by our scriptural traditions in Abrahamic religions. For a Christian, Jewish or Muslim scientist, the call to Scripture should be put aside, but Buddhism put it aside at the very beginning.

Another way that Buddhism can be called scientific is the way it engages in a very detailed examination of the mind. Within the Abhidharma, one of the three forms of canonical Buddhist literature, there is much discussion of the mind itself and various ways of analyzing how it works. He asks: How do attention and perception work? If I am attached, how does the attachment work? How does that make me behave? How to counter attachment? How do you learn to recognize attachment? These different ways of analyzing the mind that we find in the Abhidharma literature are quite detailed and profound and have already proven to be of great interest to scientists who seek alternative perspectives on the functioning of the mind.

One of the key aspects of these Buddhist mind accounts is that they do not assume that there is a single controller or ego that manages all of these processes. This belief has turned out to be a commonly accepted position among neuroscientists, who have failed to identify one part of the brain that controls everything else. There is no evidence of a single controller within the various brain processes that make up consciousness. So, Buddhism’s robust account of how the mind works as well as the stance that rejects the idea of ​​a single controller is another way Buddhism aligns quite well with our contemporary mind sciences.

When you look at all of this then, it makes sense to say that there is a possibility for a good dialogue with science and also that in a way Buddhism is scientific. But let’s not be too confused about this, because to say that there really is a Buddhist science requires certain qualifications.

The scientific method

Although there are some amazing and detailed theories in Buddhism about how the mind works and so on, many of these theories have not been revised for centuries. But this kind of revision is at the heart of the scientific method, in which a theory leads to hypotheses which are then tested, and if they don’t work, in principle we revise our theories. From there, we continue, progressing a bit. We don’t quite see this in Buddhism, where many basic theories have not been revised for centuries.

Does this mean that there is something wrong with Buddhism? If these theories are good enough for educating people and if we are not interested in what is objectively true, which in itself is a very problematic idea in Buddhism, then maybe we don’t need to ‘have as many theoretical revisions. But whether or not revising the theory is necessary or desirable, it is certainly not present in Buddhism in the same way as it is in Western scientific traditions. So we have to be careful when we talk about Buddhist science or how Buddhism is scientific.

At the same time, we see contemporary figures, notably His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who are interested in a revision of the theory. The Dalai Lama wants to engage in dialogue with scientists so that both sides can learn and revise their theories. We are seeing this slowly happening in Tibetan monastic institutions in exile and to some extent in Tibet as well, where there is a whole science education program going on. In any case, the idea of ​​Buddhism as a science has often been a way for Buddhism to negotiate its identity within modernity.

A matter of faith

There is one last question we should consider. From our cultural perspective in the United States, if Buddhism is a science, then it would appear that it cannot be a religion. We very often think that religion is opposed to science or that faith is opposed to rationality. But from a Buddhist point of view, this is already extremely problematic.

In Buddhism, there are classic accounts of what we could translate as faith. The first, which is called clear faith, involves only a feeling of being inspired. It’s not about believing anything in particular. The second aspect is motivational faith, which is a feeling of admiration for someone that motivates you to become like that person. The third characteristic of faith is confident confidence based on reasoning. You could tell that this third type of faith is involved when you see a chair and sit in it – a simple glance suggests that the chair is unlikely to collapse when you sit down. It’s a leap of faith to just sit in the chair, but it’s not completely irrational.

We often think of religion as involving a set of beliefs which cannot be substantiated by rationality as they are somehow beyond rationality. Rationality is the domain of science and this kind of faith is the domain of religion. If we adopt this kind of division, then Buddhism is not a religion, because it does not even approve of this type of division.

However, for religious scholars, Buddhism is certainly a religion. But we must ask ourselves the question: what does religion mean here?

What is a religion?

It is a difficult question to answer exactly. But let me present to you an idea that I find particularly useful, which comes from Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), known as the father of sociology. In his famous work Elementary forms of religious life, Durkheim affirmed that religions give us the tools to build our reality together. It gives us the categories – space and time, gender, etc. – which allow us to experience the world in a similar way. Of course, different cultures and religions have different ways of doing this. Sometimes this means that they come into conflict because they cannot understand each other to the point that their worlds seem incompatible. They cannot even understand their different notions, for example of what constitutes good or what constitutes beauty or what constitutes happiness.

For Durkheim, religion is what gives us these tools to build reality, and we acquire these tools by participating in what he calls the sacred. The sacred is not about some sort of special mystical underlying world that is hiding behind things. The sacred is simply what we mark as special in our lives, something that brings us all together and that we both honor. When we come together and honor what we consider special, we participate in the mutual construction of a reality.

This view means that religion could certainly apply to any system that brings people together on certain occasions to focus on what is special and, in that sense, participate in worship. This idea could apply very clearly to Buddhism, but it can also apply to many other things.

I teach at the University of Wisconsin, and on several weekends in the fall we see about 50 to 60,000 people dressed in the same color, all marching through the streets towards the Great Hall, where they congregate. , sing songs and share a special moment. I’m talking, of course, of a college football game. Go badgers! Is this religion? In some ways, from a Durkheimian perspective, sports fandom functions very well like religion.

So what is religion? It’s hard to say.

But the idea that Buddhism is not a religion is very problematic because part of what Buddhism is, even in a very conscious way, is the creation or recreation of our shared reality together.


For more on this and other questions, see Buddhism for Beginners, the new free Tricycle resource for learning about Buddhist basics. Or to go even further, join John Dunne’s Buddhism for beginners Classes.