The Scientific Buddha

These days it seems everyone’s out to find scientific explanations for the benefits of Buddhism, but the Scientific Buddha is a Western invention.

| September/October 2013

  • Buddha 3
    A rendering of Buddhabrot iterated to 20,000 on all three channels R, G, and B.
    Photo By Evercat
  • Buddha 1
    The Buddhabrot is a mathematical set of points related to the Mandelbrot set, so named for its perceived resemblance to depictions of Gautama Buddha seated in meditation. The fractal map becomes more detailed with increasing iterations. Here, the set was iterated 100 times in blue, 1,000 in green, and 20,000 in red.
    Photo By UnreifeKirsche
  • Buddha 2
    Buddhabrot rendered with 100 iterations.
    Photo By UnreifeKirsche

  • Buddha 3
  • Buddha 1
  • Buddha 2

According to Buddhist doctrine, there can be only one buddha for each historical age. A new buddha appears in the world only when the teachings of the previous buddha have been completely forgotten, with no remnant—a text, a statue, the ruins of a pagoda, or even a reference in a dictionary—remaining. Because the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, remain present in the world, we have no need for a new buddha. But in the 19th century, a new buddha suddenly appeared in the world, a buddha who is not mentioned in any of the prophecies. What he taught is said to be compatible with modern science, and so I call him the Scientific Buddha.

Today, the Scientific Buddha is often mistaken for Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, the real Buddha. But they are not the same. And this case of mistaken identity has particular consequences for those who seek to understand and practice the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Some 2,500 years after the lifetime of the historical Buddha, the following quotation about Buddhism was ascribed to Albert Einstein: “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. If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” This statement cannot be located in any of Einstein’s writings. But there is something about Buddhism, and about the Buddha, that caused someone to ascribe these words to Einstein. And since the time when Einstein didn’t say this, intimations of deep connections between Buddhism and science have continued, right up until today. In any given month, such publications as The New York Times and The Washington Post report on clinical studies investigating the affinity of Buddhism and science, particularly neurobiology.

I had once imagined that claims for the compatibility of Buddhism and science derived from the 1960s, gaining their first popular expression in Fritjof Capra’s 1975 best seller The Tao of Physics. The claims did derive from the ’60s, but I was off by a century. Statements about the compatibility of Buddhism and science were being made in the 1860s—in Europe and America during the Victorian period, as Buddhism became fashionable in intellectual circles, and at the same time in Asia, as Buddhist thinkers were defending themselves against the attacks of Christian missionaries. Thus, to understand what the compatibility of Buddhism and science means today, it is necessary to understand what it meant a century and a half ago.


Buddhists first encountered science, perhaps ironically, in the guise of Christianity. In missionary attacks on Buddhism, from Francis Xavier in Japan in the 16th century to Spence Hardy in Sri Lanka in the 19th century, Christianity is proclaimed as superior to Buddhism in part because it possesses the scientific knowledge to accurately describe the world, something that Buddhism lacked. For the missionaries, then, science was not an opponent of religion, or at least of the true religion, but its ally. Science would serve as a tool of the missionary and as a reason for conversion. Later, science would be portrayed as the product of a more generalized “European civilization,” something that this civilization would take around the world. The vehicle for that journey was colonialism.

Tharinda Bandara
8/20/2013 11:11:58 AM

Tharinda, if you need to study Buddhism,you better go to Sri Lanka,make your mind fee, by meditation.if you study deep,you may find time-space curve,parallel words,soul, size of universe, size of atom,economy,love,lot of things what you need,about 17000 books.some of them are in old Indian language PALI. Concepts in science will change every day, but Buddhism already 2500 years old,never change.

Isa Kocher
8/17/2013 1:27:18 AM

the fourfold noble truth and the 8 fold way and all the sura are doctrine sure as shootin. no oxy no moron a lot of oxytocin no matter how you do it cuz ALL religious practice does include stress reduction. mechanisms. the deer park sermon clearly was about the middle way. stress was utterly fundamentally categorically rejected as a means. so the writer fundamentally misunderstands the foundations of ur buddhism meditation. stress clouds. meditation clarifies. you need your health, attacking your health cannot help. frankly i would doubt that the current dalai lama is deliberately misleading scientists about buddhist meditation. be that as it may, the foundation meditations are about seeing that first noble truth clearly, not feeling all upset about it. suffering is the first holy truth. you don't need any stress. suffering is your nature: once you actually see that, then you are empowered to go on step by step to the 8 fold noble way. none of the 8 faces of the way is in any way facilitated by stress. only clarity. #1 is right view. stress clouds your view. intention speech action livelihood effort mindfuliness concentration. when you really see suffering clearly, it loses your power over you. and you go on, like the ox herding pictures. "teacher, my suffering is so great, i can't bear it" "it's so great, that the whole universe can't bear it." the last thing you need is stress.

Isa Kocher
8/17/2013 12:24:49 AM

there are so many diverse traditions all derived from some ur buddhism. which these are you all talking about?

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