Introduction – A Scientific Approach to Buddha Dhamma

July 31, 2020; revised August 2, 2020

 A Scientific Approach to Buddha Dhamma

1. Buddha Dhamma is the Grand Unified Theory (a theory that explains everything about this world) that scientists are seeking. They do not realize it because the correct version of it, with its deeper aspects, has not been available in English. There are two major relevant points.

  • First, scientists will never get to a Grand Unified Theory until they realize that mental phenomena must be a part of such a theory. Modern science only focuses on just “material phenomena.” The reason is the following incorrect assumption by them: Psychological (mental) aspects arise from matter. The Buddha taught that it is the other way around: Mind is the forerunner of ALL phenomena, mental and material.
  • The second point is the following. When scientists propose a brand new theory, they just use a set of assumptions. Some assumptions (axioms) are revolutionary and initially opposed by other scientists. We will discuss such a prominent case below. The point is that they are not starting with a genuinely essential set of axioms that cover mental and physical phenomena.

I will use the standard scientific method in this series of posts. I will start with a set of “assumptions,” even though those are NOT ASSUMPTIONS for a Buddha. Upon attaining the Buddhahood, a Buddha DISCOVERS those fundamental laws of Nature.

What Is a Scientific Approach?

2. Most of the time, science makes progress in a gradual, step-by-step way. An existing scientific theory is “tweaked” to get a better agreement with new experimental results.

  • However, In some cases, scientists come up with “previously unheard” theories to explain new observations. Most other scientists are first skeptical about such a drastically new approach. But if it turns out to be able to explain observations, then it becomes accepted over time.
  • Such a “revolutionary change” is a paradigm change. A good example is theories on atomic structure. Paradigm changes have happened twice within the past 100 years, as shown below.
Western Theories of the Atom Started with Democritus

3. Around the time of the Buddha, Democritus (400 B.C.E.) proposed that all matter is made of indivisible particles called atoms. But nothing much was known about atoms at that time.

  • Democritus just assumed that if one keeps cutting in half a piece of a given material (say, an aluminum foil), it will reach a stage where cutting would not be possible. That ultimate “indivisible” unit, he called an “atom.”
  • That picture has changed drastically, especially within the past 150 years.
  • Of course, Buddha’s ultimate unit of matter was a suddhāṭṭhaka. It is also electrically neutral, just like Democritus’ atom. However, a mind can create a suddhāṭṭhaka with javana citta. A suddhāṭṭhaka is a billionth times smaller than an atom in modern science. See “The Origin of Matter – Suddhāṭṭhaka.”
Modern Theories of the Atom

4. In 1803, John Dalton proposed a modern theory of the atom. He suggested that different materials are made of different atoms and that a given atom cannot be broken down into smaller parts.

  • For example, an oxygen atom would be eight times bigger than a hydrogen atom, but an oxygen atom CANNOT be made by combining eight hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen and oxygen have different types of “building blocks” or different atoms.
  • Dalton was able to make some progress with his model.
Plum-Pudding Model of the Atom by J. J. Thomson

5. In the late 1800s, there were many experiments on electrical discharges. J. J. Thomson discovered that negatively charged electrons could be removed from an atom. Since atoms are electrically neutral, in 1904, he proposed that an atom is made of a positively charged material with electrons embedded in it.

  • That is analogous to plums embedded in a pudding. Thus, it became known as the “plum-pudding model” of an atom. See “Plum Pudding Model” for that model of an atom.

The following video illustrates this point:

  • Therefore, the indivisibility of the atom was no longer accepted. Yet, Thomson’s model still preserved one aspect of the original model of Democritus. An atom could be visualized as a “single unit” with two kinds of particles packed together. Later on, the positively charged component was found to be due to protons, and a neutral particle (neutron) was also found to be inside an atom.
Rutherford’s Discovery of Mass-Concentrated Nucleus

6. Soon after, another English physicist, Ernest Rutherford, directed small alpha particles (much smaller than an atom) to a thin gold foil. He observed that most particles went right through the foil. However, some got deflected, and a few even bounced back. It appeared that the atoms were mostly empty space, but something dense and small in there bounced off some of the projectile particles.

  • Based on those experiments, Rutherford, in 1911, proposed a radically new theory of the atom. He proposed that the positively charged component of an atom be in a tiny volume compared to the rest of the atom. That central volume also contained the bulk of the mass of the atom. This region would be known as the “nucleus” of the atom. Negatively charged electrons would be outside that nucleus, but Rutherford did not propose a model for the atom’s “outer layer” with electrons.
Bohr’s Planetary Model of the Atom

7. In 1913, Niels Bohr came up with another paradigm change for atomic structure. He proposed that the electrons “revolved around” a tiny nucleus, a small core that contained all the protons. That is similar to the structure of the Solar System, where the planets revolve around the Sun.

  • Thus, some called it the “planetary model,” another name for the “Bohr Model.” That planetary model of the atom was able to explain many experimental observations.

  • Atoms of different materials have different numbers of protons (and electrons). For example, a hydrogen atom has one proton in the nucleus and one electron moving around it. An oxygen atom has eight protons and eight electrons, etc.
  • However, Bohr’s planetary model cannot explain a growing number of other observations.
Quantum Mechanics

8.  In the end, the planetary model of the atom was replaced by another change of paradigm. That was the modern quantum mechanical treatment of the atom. Wolfgang Pauli first postulated it in 1925, using Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics.

  • Many other scientists, including Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger contributed to developing and refining the new quantum theory. They postulated the occurrence of energy in discrete quantities (quanta) to explain phenomena such as the spectrum of black-body radiation, the photoelectric effect, and the stability and spectra of atoms. Thus, the name “quantum mechanics.”
  • In quantum theory, the position of an electron in an orbital cannot be specified. One could only calculate the likelihood of an electron being at a given location. It is known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. See “Copenhagen interpretation.”
  • That is the accepted theory at present. However, there are still many unresolved issues in quantum mechanics. Even though it can calculate the results of ANY experiment, it is “too abstract” for many, including Einstein.  The current position is summarized by the sentence “Shut up and calculate!” as discussed in “Copenhagen interpretation.” I have discussed a new interpretation of quantum mechanics, “Quantum Mechanics and Dhamma – Introduction.”
Ability to Explain Observations – Primary Requirement of a Scientific Theory

9. The determining factors of a scientific theory are the ability to explain observations and self-consistency. It does not matter how crazy the new theory appears, as long as it meets those two criteria. As we saw above, quantum theory is accepted today despite not being an “understandable” theory.

  • In fact, as long as a theory fulfills those criteria, objections by even the most prominent scientists cannot prevent a good theory from taking hold.
  • For example, Einstein opposed quantum theory. He tried to come up with a “better explanation”  until he died. Despite his objections, quantum theory became firmly established.
  • In its current form, Quantum theory is incomprehensible to even many scientists. The problem is that it is just a mathematical tool to make calculations. Even physicists do not have an “intuitive grasp” of the underlying aspects of quantum mechanics.
Scientific Approach to Buddha Dhamma

10. In this section, we will use the above-discussed “scientific approach.” We will start with the “new theory about the world” put forth by the Buddha. It was a revolutionary theory 2600 years ago and remains a revolutionary theory today.

  • Just like Einstein could not come to terms with quantum theory, many people today find it challenging to comprehend Buddha Dhamma.
  • However, much of the current confusion lies in the fact that many people are not aware of the “full theory” of Buddha Dhamma. They have seen only parts of Buddha’s theory and conclude that those ideas are too “esoteric” or “mystical.”
  • Yet, unlike quantum mechanics, anyone can understand Buddha Dhamma if the basic principles are understood.
  • I hope that by presenting a “complete theory” using a “bottom-up approach,” we can take a fresh perspective on some concepts like kamma, rebirth, and Nibbāna.
The Necessary Components of Buddha Dhamma

11. We need to convince ourselves of the validity of the basic concepts in Buddha Dhamma before being able to comprehend the more profound teachings like Paṭicca Samuppāda, Tilakkhana (anicca, dukkha, anatta,) and the Four Noble Truths.

  • Those basic concepts (equivalent to “assumptions” or “axioms” in scientific theories) are the laws of kamma, the existence of 31 realms, and the rebirth process within those realms.
  • However, those concepts are not assumptions. They are laws of Nature, discovered by a Buddha. When one starts understanding (and practicing) Buddha Dhamma, one will see the truth of that statement.

1. Wikipedia article, “Scientific method

2. Here is another video that provides a somewhat different perspective on the evolution of theories of atoms:

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