The Relation of Buddhism to Modern Science: ATOM & ANATHTHA

Part 3 (previous parts 1, 2)

Buddhism to Modern Science

Everybody should agree in saying that science is the leading factor that creates modern civilization. The recent discovery of the release of nuclear energy brings mankind to a new age—the so-called Atomic Age. But unfortunately the first sign that served as an announcement of the opening of this new era was the explosion of a new lethal weapon called the atomic bomb. Men began to worry that they are living in an atomic age where total annihilation of the whole civilized races is actually possible. They generally cannot but think that men are going along the wrong track, and feel that it would be better to give up the deadly energy and enjoy a peaceful though simpler life like their ancestors. But history does not allow events to go backwards. As Mr. Arthur H. Compton, an authoritative American scientist, said, in One World or None, “No group of men had the power to prevent the coming of the atomic age.”

So the only right thing for men to do is to be aware of the serious position where mankind now stands and adjust their thinking and their mode of living in such a way so that they may make the best possible use of this new force that has been put into their hands. As a matter of fact there is nothing wrong with the bomb; what’s wrong is with man himself. Furthermore, the truth revealed as to the inside nature of the atom has undoubtedly invaluable influence not only upon the field of science itself but upon all other branches of knowledge: psychology, philosophy and even theology. It is the aim of this talk to introduce the important facts and new conceptions disclosed by the scientists of today and to compare these analogically with the fundamental principles of reality unveiled and preached by Sakyamuni, the Buddha, some two thousand five hundred years ago.

In 1808 John Dalton propounded the atomic theory. He believed that an element actually consisted of separate invisible and indivisible atoms. He thought of atoms as things having the properties of a billiard ball. In the later part of that century great scientists like Michael Faraday, James Maxwell and Lord Kelvin began their work in the development of electrical science. The electric nature of an atom was partly disclosed. In 1913 Niels Bohr of Copenhagen produced a theory stating that an atom consisted of two parts, a small heavy nucleus surrounded by a large empty region in which electrons move somewhat like planets about the sun. Around the electrons there are lines of magnetic force; the influence of these lines is theoretically universal.

Faraday symbolized an atom as a starfish with a small body and comparatively long limbs which entangle things the limbs contact. This might be put thus: the constituents of the material universe interact with one another and are really inseparable. This concept of the atom has important philosophical significance.

Things do not exist individually. The existence of a single object is therefore nothing more than a mental illusion. The universe is simply a process, a system of interconnected activities in which nothing moves independently of the rest and where all is in ceaseless motion. This is exactly the same in principle, though different in words, as the Buddha’s preaching of “Anicca,” which means the impermanent or transient nature of things.

Until the release of nuclear energy men still had a shady belief in the existence of ninety-four elements, whose atoms were visualized to be indestructible. Yet as early as 1905 Scientist Albert Einstein had already foreseen the fact that mass and energy were convertible, and he gave the neat equation: E = mc2, where E = energy, c = the velocity of light, m = mass. It is apparent from the equation that a small piece of matter, if converted entirely into energy, would give an enormous amount of energy. And this equation has been verified to be principally correct by the atomic bombs which exploded over New Mexico, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. Thus matter or the atom can be described as a highly concentrated form of energy. The reaction which occurs in an exploding atomic bomb can be expressed in the following:

U-235 + neutron = I = Y = N neutrons (U = uranium, I = iodine, Y = yttrium, N = a number); thus an Uranium atom breaks up and transforms into atoms of Iodine and Yttrium.

The atom, the original meaning of which is “indivisible,” had been finally proven to be divisible. But in ordinary chemistry the conventional theory of the atom still holds good for most practical purposes. Paradoxically it might be put in the following way: An atom is not (really) an atom; it is called an atom for the sake of convenience. One might notice the startling resemblance here of science with Buddhism if one ever had read the Diamond Sutta in which it is said: “When the Tathagata speaks of universes he does not mean really universes; he calls them universes only nominally.”

Let us now turn to a field to which scientists pay comparatively little attention, that is, to our mental faculties. Though the psychic functions are much more complicated and subtle than physical phenomena, yet every sentient being has enough instruments, and material of his own, if he only cares to observe and to do his experiment on himself. Our mental or psychic faculties can be divided into two fields: those which function within the field of consciousness, and those beyond the field of consciousness. Different psychologists give different terms and definitions to the latter, some call it sub-consciousness, while others call it unconsciousness, yet they generally agree to mean that part of our psychic activities which is beyond the perception and control of our conscious mind. As to the content of this field of sub-consciousness or unconsciousness, psychologists suggest various terms, such as: primitive inherited impulse and desire, original nature, impulse, drive, urge, instinct, etc. As a matter of fact science in this particular branch is still in its infancy.

It is a strange fact that the field of sub-consciousness, which is in a large part obscure to the men of the atomic age, can be found clearly and repeatedly in various Buddhist writings. In these writings not only is the theory of mind given but also the physical and mental trainings are shown: for getting hold of the seemingly uncontrollable impulses and desires, for uprooting them entirely, and for attaining to the state called Enlightenment where one experiences things as they really are and finally proves the principle of Anatta which means that there is nothing called a personal ego.

It is not possible to mention here with any detail the Buddhist philosophy and training of mind but it might be of interest to you perhaps if I explain briefly the philosophy of the Dharmalakshana school (the consciousness-only or perception-only school). According to the philosophy of this school, the constituents of the universe are divided into eight faculties (or eight consciousnesses). The first five are the five sensual faculties i.e., the faculty to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, and to feel. The sixth faculty is the most active one. It consists of practically all the mental functions within the field of consciousness. The seventh faculty is the instinctive grasp or attachment of ego. And the eighth one is the most important of all. It is sometimes termed the “reservoir faculty”, [1] where the tendencies and energies of all our previous actions and experiences are kept. The seventh and eighth faculties function continuously as the centre of the psychic system no matter whether a man is in the state of awareness or of sleep or is even in the state we commonly call death. When all the above-mentioned six faculties cease to function the force of the seventh faculty or attachment of ego is tremendous; it is like the nuclear binding energy of an atom. It causes the arising of the superficial layer, indifferent forms, in the instinctive desire to live, to propagate, to possess, etc.

The intellectual power of a human being.

As a matter of fact the ego-instinct originates and directs almost all the superficial functions such as volition, emotion, etc., and even affects our system of reasoning. It distorts our conscious mind and hence creates the illusory picture of the individual existence of “I,” “Being,” “Things,” etc., thus overshadowing the real nature of impermanence and egolessness. Since all the faculties of the conscious mind are more or less affected by the blind attachment of the ego, it might be said, figuratively, that the field of subconsciousness is the nucleus in which the ego-attachment is the binding force. The other mental faculties move around it like the electrons revolving round the nucleus of an atom. The arrangement of electrons in the orbits of an atom determines its chemical properties, so do the conscious faculties like volition, emotion, intellect, etc., of a certain individual determine his personality or character.

It is worthwhile to mention especially the intellectual power of a human being. It has the power of reasoning, understanding and generalizing all the events occurring in experience; thus through this faculty men are able to transmit and interchange their ideas and thoughts, just as the electrons in the outermost orbit make possible the flow of electric current. Another important feature of the intellect is that it is the least affected by the influence of the ego-instinct. On the contrary, through reasoning and contemplation it even possesses the power of self-realizing the truth of egolessness. It is actually by means of this delicate faculty that the detachment of the ego, figuratively speaking the breaking of a psychic atom, is possible.

Induced, perhaps, by the newly disclosed scientific ideas and theories, a scientist and philosopher like William James declared that consciousness was only a function, and one like Bertrand Russell said that such a term as “mental” does not belong to a single entity in its own right (that is, the imaginary ego), but only to a system of entities. The revival of egolessness foreshadows the possible recovery of their faith in reality, which is built upon a rational philosophy closely related to modern science.

But to understand the emptiness of the ego is one thing; to practice, to realise and to live an egoless life is quite another. Einstein visualized the probable release of nuclear energy but the actual bomb came into existence some forty years later. There were people like Sakyamuni and his arahat-followers, though with aim quite different from the scientists, who declared their attainment to the state of full enlightenment and annihilation of the ego; yet compared with billions of sentient beings they are just as rare as the self-radiating elements uranium, radium, actinium, and thorium on this earth. It is also interesting to notice that in the Buddhist teaching, everywhere, the principle of the so-called “Middle Path” or “Middle Way” can be seen.

This principle essentially teaches one to refrain from going to extremes in both physical and mental practices. And it is believed that this principle effectively leads one to penetration and enlight-enment. In the process of penetrating into the nature of an atom, scientists found that an atom consisted of a complex system of negatively charged electrons widely spaced around a positively charged nucleus. Charged particles (such as protons, electrons, or alpha particles) and electromagnetic radiations (such as gamma rays) lose energy and thus slow down in passing through that field. They discovered finally a new particle which they called the neutron, having no elect-ric charge, able to penetrate through the orbits and go its way unchecked until it makes a “head on” collision with an atomic nucleus.

Though atomic science and Buddhism seem to be entirely different yet they are really tackling the same problem of energy and release of energy by breaking highly concentrated form of energy called the atom in one case, and the ego in the other. And their direction is the same, namely, “inward”: Therefore we should not be astonished by the close resemblance between the two. The energy released through the breaking of an ego is not so evident as in the atomic bomb yet the Buddha’s highest wisdom and infinite compassion are very much like the light and heat released from the natural source of atomic energy of the sun.

Briefly I have mentioned two of the three fundamental principles of Buddhism, namely anicca (impermanence) and anatta (egolessness). The other important principle is called dukkha (suffering) or the consequence of an egoistic life. These three principles are so important that they are actually considered as the testing-stone of Buddhism. Any theory or philosophy which is completely in accordance with these three principles is justified to be called Buddhist; and anything not in accordance with the three is not Buddhist. From this fact the rational character of Buddhism can be easily felt.

By Upasaka Wu Shu
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